MANCHESTER, Maine — Ricky Jones of the Samoset Resort Golf Club has been a perennial contender at the Maine Amateur Championship for several years.
For the moment, he is the man to beat in the battle of the state’s top amateur golfers.
Jones shot a 4-under-par 66 Tuesday to grab a four-stroke lead in the 94th Maine Amateur Championship being held at Augusta Country Club.
The Thomaston golfer, a two-time winner at the tournament who was the runner-up last year and in 2010, birdied three of his last five holes in the opening round to seize the upper hand.
“The first day is just kind of, keep it in play, try not to make a big number,” Jones said. “Hopefully, I’ll just keep doing it the same way.”
Jones holds a three-stroke advantage over a group of four golfers, including three-time champion Ryan Gay of Pittston, who is competing on his home course. Also at 1 under are Mike O’Brien and Tommy Stirling, both playing out of Sable Oaks Golf Club in South Portland, and Brian Bilodeau of Martindale Country Club in Auburn.
Scott Sirois of The Woodlands Club in Falmouth and Craig Chapman of Fox Ridge Golf Club in Auburn are at even par, four shots off the pace, while 13-time winner Mark Plummer of Manchester and Augusta Country Club lurks five shots off the pace, alone at 1 over par.
Among the eight players at 2 over are Len Cole of Hampden, who is playing out of Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono, and Sam Grindle of Island Country Club in Deer Isle. That contingent also includes J.J. Harris of Bath Golf Club, the runner-up each of the last two years.
Defending champion Seth Sweet of Madison is tied for 31st and is nine shots back after shooting a 5-over-par 75. Only the top 40 scores and ties after Wednesday’s second round advance toThursday’s final round in the 54-hole event.
The 41-year-old Jones, who played a practice round at Augusta on Sunday, found conditions to his liking during Tuesday’s first round.
He was 1 under on the front nine, birdieing the 197-yard seventh hole amidst eight pars. On the back, Jones rattled off four straight pars before picking up birdies on the 327-yard par 4 14th hole and the 144-yard par 3 15th.
“I missed one green on the front and I made a 15-footer on seven for my only bridie,” Jones said. “On the back, I started hitting it pretty good.”
Hitting greens was key, he explained, because they were soft and the rough was thick.
“It was obviously still wet, but the greens were soft and they were rolling nice,” Jones added. “I stayed out of the thick rough.”
He ended the round with a birdie on the par 5 18th to complete the back nine at 3 under and finish with a 66.
“On 14, I had a six-footer [putt] and 15, I ended up hitting to about six inches, so that made it easy,” he added. “On 18, I hit it right up front in two.”
Other golfers from the northern half of the state also are in the mix after day one, including Ralph Michaud of Aroostook Valley Country Club in Fort Fairfield (73), Drew Powell of PVCC (75) and Porter Gervais of Houlton Community Golf Course (77).