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By Craig Dolch
Special to PGA of America
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (Nov. 17, 2023) – Mike Ballo Jr. of Westchester Country Club doesn’t look at leaderboards until after the second round of a tournament.
When he did so Friday at the National Car Rental Assistant PGA Professional Championship, he saw his name at the top, tied for the lead with Preston Cole of Quail Hollow Club.
Later Friday, Ballo also saw a familiar name near the top of the leaderboard: his brother, Peter. The younger brother – Mike is 35, Peter is 32 – is in third place, a shot behind the leaders.
Mike Ballo, playing in the day’s second group, had two birdies in his last three holes on the Wanamaker Course for a 3-under 69 to catch Cole at 8-under 136 at windy PGA Golf Club. He also correctly predicted his brother would play well Friday afternoon.
“I have a feeling he’s going to play a good one today,” Mike said after his round. “It’s funny, me and my brother have been paired together in this event on the weekend more than any other. I have a feeling if we both keep our head down, one of us will have a chance of winning.”
Peter Ballo of Connecticut Golf Club proved his brother prophetic by firing a 5-under 67 – the day’s best score – to move into Saturday’s final threesome. He had six birdies against a lone late bogey to move to 7-under 137.
“It’s definitely calming to know I’ll have a chance to play with him tomorrow and hopefully keep the nerves down,” Peter Ballo said. “We’ve obviously played a lot of golf together. Who usually wins? It depends on the day. I can beat him; he can beat me. Hopefully, we’ll both play well together.”
They both played well in last year’s Championship – Mike was T6 and Peter T12 – as well as on Friday. Despite Mike’s score being two shots higher than Thursday’s 67, he said he played better in the second round.
“I felt much better hitting the golf ball today than I did yesterday,” Ballo said. “I know that sounds crazy. I felt I played better today because the course setup was tougher, especially the pin placements.”
Cole got his round off to an electric start when he chipped in at the par-5 first hole for his second eagle in as many days. He also rebounded from a pair of bogeys on the back nine with birdies on the next hole to shoot his second consecutive 4-under 68. He is 8-under on the par-5s.
“I have played the par-5s really well this week,” said Cole, who was T27 in this Championship in 2021. “I’ve been able to get it around most of the par-5s in two. Eagles are always a bonus. We definitely got the good side of the draw.”
The luck of the draw has played a role during the first two rounds of the National Car Rental Assistant PGA Professional Championship. The players who got the early-late tee times got the raw end as they faced much tougher conditions Thursday morning.
Among the late-early starters were Matt Dubrowski (72) of Atlantic Golf Club and Dylan Newman (70) of Meadow Brook Club, who are tied for fourth place at 4-under 140.
PGA of America officials continued to use preferred lies in the second round because of the wet conditions. But they also stretched the course from 6,820 to 6,935 yards.
“The course played harder today because it was longer,” said Dubrowski, who bogeyed his last two holes. “The last stretch (of holes) is a lot harder today into the wind. I got a little sloppy at the end.”
Newman has had success on the Wanamaker Course, winning several PGA Tournament Series and PGA Winter Championship events. He gave himself another opportunity to lift a trophy after an uneven 70 that included five birdies and three bogeys.
“Today’s round was stressful because I hit it terribly. No confidence,” Newman said. “I got up-and-down a lot. This tournament, the (Wanamaker) course always seems to be a little harder than the Tournament Series. You just have to keep making pars, stop making bogeys and the birdies will come.”
First-round leader Trevor Bensel of Sandy Run Country Club was 5-over after six holes Friday, but played the rest of his round in 2-under. He’s tied for sixth with Alan Morin (72) of The Club at Ibis and Zac Oakley (71) of Bidermann Golf Club.
The 36-hole cut came at 8-over 152. Sunday’s winner, provided they’re eligible, will earn a spot in the 2024 PGA Professional Championship at PGA Frisco’s Fields Ranch in April. The top four finishers and ties will earn exemptions into the 2024 National Car Rental Assistant PGA Professional Championship.
For more about the National Car Rental Assistant PGA Professional Championship, supported by Srixon, Cleveland Golf, Asics, visit here.
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