ROARING BROOK TWP. — Jason Hill’s round was so stunning he did not know whether to laugh or cry.
“I didn’t cheat, I promise,” Hill joked after an improbable 5-under-par 65 in Thursday’s first round gave him sole possession of second place in the Nationwide Tour’s Northeast Pennsylvania Classic at Elmhurst Country Club. “I have two others to attest to it.”
Hill may need those playing partners to help explain how he could climb into early contention in his first Nationwide Tour appearance and his second tournament start of any kind since coming up short in last year’s Tour Qualifying School.
Michael Sims assumed the first-round lead with a bogey-free round of 64, but Hill’s play was the day’s most surprising development.
Hill won the area’s stop on the tour in 2001 when the tournament was known as the Steamtown Classic, the event was played at Glenmaura National and the tour was sponsored by Buy.com.
That victory led tournament director Paul Taramelli to issue one of four sponsor exemptions to Hill.
“It feels like home here,” Hill said. “I’ve had some good times here, even when I didn’t win.”
Hill was wiping away tears when he talked about calling home to Rockwall, Texas, with news of his day. His son Jack Michael was born three weeks ago and just made it home last week after a complicated pregnancy that was difficult on Hill’s wife Nicole and the baby.
“She had a tough time with the C-section,” Hill said. “It’s been tough on her, but we have a lot of family back home in Rockwall helping.
“This is a really weird feeling. Sometimes not having any expectations is the best thing for you.”
Hill had reason not to expect much. His six trips back since winning have all resulted in missed cuts. Hand and toe injuries cut his 2004 and 2005 seasons in half and he has played even fewer tour events since. When able to travel this season, it has been for one lower-level Adams Tour event appearance and otherwise he has been home in a day after failed Monday qualifying attempts.
“If you had seen me start off the pro-am, it wasn’t pretty,” Hill said.
Hill said he stumbled across something about halfway through Wednesday’s exhibition and stuck with it. He hit his approach shots close all day Thursday, making seven birdies, all from inside 20 feet.
“I have no idea how to explain it,” Hill said. “I have no expectations, but obviously I handled it pretty well when things got going.”
Hill handed it so well that he matched his career-low 65.
The previous 65 was a special one, too. It came down the road a few miles on the Sunday at Glenmaura and produced his only Nationwide victory.
Sims turned three clutch shots in the first six holes into early momentum that produced the day’s best round.
After getting up-and-down from 20 yards short of the green on 10, his first hole, Sims put a 3-iron from 236 yards to within 30 feet and made the putt for eagle at 11. He added four birdies later in the round, including a 4-iron to 25 feet on the 203-yard 15th.
“Sixty-fours are what they are,” Sims said. “Things have to go well for it to happen.
“I make par on the first hole of the day and then make an eagle putt. I could have been even or 1-under but I was already 2-under.”
Sims said he putted well throughout the round including to save some of the pars.
The 30-year-old in his second year on tour has tied for ninth twice this season for his best finishes.
Ryan Armour, Garrett Osborn, Daniel McCarthy, Martin Flores and Henrik Bjornstad were tied for third after shooting 66s.
A pack of 58 players is at 67, 68 or 69.
Armour and Osborn each teed off before 8 and set the early pace.
“I was tired this morning, getting up at 5 a.m.,” said Armour, who birdied three of the first six holes. “But they were perfect conditions.
“You know it and try to take advantage.”
Osborn, a second-year tour player, shook off a bogey on his first hole. He missed a birdie chance at 11, but then got birdies on 12, 14, 16, and 18 to play his first nine in 32.
“I got a lucky break on 18,” he said. “I hit it in the rough, but I blasted it out to about a foot.”
McCarthy, a 24-year-old from Syracuse, is making his first pro appearance on the Nationwide Tour. The 2007 LeMoyne graduate has been playing on the Canadian Tour.
After getting to 4-under in his first 10 holes, he had two bogeys and two birdies the rest of the way.
Flores, in his first full year on tour, birdied three of his first five holes.
Bjornstad, a 30-year-old from Norway, finished strong. He had an eagle at the par-4 third then birdied 8 and 9, his last two holes.
Wyoming Valley West and Penn State graduate Greg Pieczynski opened with a 4-over-par 74.
Pieczynski had eight straight pars before three-putting 9, his last hole, for a bogey. The 27-year-old is playing out of the Philadelphia Section of the PGA and claimed one of the section’s three spots in the field during a qualifying event.
Huntsville Golf Club member Tyler Brewington shot a 73.
Brewington, from Benton, is a 2008 Rider University graduate who is playing this year on the Hooters Tour and Tarheel Tour. He was making his tour debut as a professional after playing once in 2007 as an amateur.
Brewington started on the back nine. He rallied for back-to-back birdies on 7 and 8 before finishing with a bogey-4. He gained entry to the field by shooting 70 in Monday’s qualifier at Pocono Farms Country Club to grab one of 14 available spots.
Scranton native Chris Miller, playing out of Phoenix, shot a 70.
Nicholas Reach, a Scranton Prep junior from Moscow who is the only amateur in the field, shot 71. He finished with 10 straight pars.
Miller and Reach are both in the tournament on sponsor exemptions.
Valley View graduate Kevin Busteed had one of his two double bogeys on his first hole and, despite three birdies, finished with a 77. He made the field through an open qualifying tournament at Pocono Farms Country Club Monday.