A year ago, while watching Poplar Bluff’s Carr Vernon threaten to make the cut, the high school’s athletic director said that half of the town would turn out for the weekend.
Well, west-bound Highway 60 from southeast Missouri to Springfield might be busy Saturday after Vernon fired a 4-under par 68 in the second round of the PGA Korn Ferry Tour’s Price Cutter Charity Championship presented by Dr Pepper.
That landed Vernon with a 6-under-par – and made the cut Friday — after missing the cut by one stroke last year at Highland Springs Country Club, where a strong contingent who followed his days as a Poplar Bluff Mule might surround him this weekend.
It’s some story, considering he missed the cut by one stroke at the Wichita Open last month, and lost in playoffs at the Nashville and Kansas City Monday qualifiers.
“I learned the golf course – where to hit it and where not to hit it,” Vernon said Friday of what he learned a year ago. “And, overall, I just let loose more and tried not to get too tight. Now I have more confidence.”
Vernon certainly exuded confidence in the second round, with an eagle on the par-5 No. 8 – his next-to-last hole – and had six birdies. Those offset four bogeys.
Those came with Scott Whitaker, a member of Highland Springs Country Club, caddying for Vernon, whose dad, Jimmy, caddied last year. Jimmy underwent a knee surgery recently, however.
The No. 8 hole certainly punctuated his day. He used an 8-iron for what became a 162-yard shot, which landed within five feet of the pin. His drive set it up well, too, and that’s a hard shot. The tee box sits up high, but the fairway dips down, with the green out of sight – and a pond that sits in front of it.
His round also included long putts on Nos. 4 and 13 for birdies, and he was even on No. 11, which is a par 5 hole.
That one dog-legs left, with lines of trees running along both sides of the fairway, giving it a narrow feel. Add in sand traps ahead of the green – and a steep, unforgivable drop-off on the other side – and it can become a disaster. It wasn’t for him, with Vernon three-putting.
“I just try to stay focused and try not to get too excited,” Vernon said. “I made some dumb mistakes where you see the bogeys. But I hung in there and played all right.”
Two other Missourians
Fair Grove’s Brock Derrick and Joplin’s Griffen Locke both missed the cut.
Derrick was playing on an unrestricted exemption and carded a 84-80 164. He had nine pars and finished with birdies on two of his final holes, including a nice 10-foot par on No. 9.
“I learned I’ve got to get better at reading a yardage book,” Derrick said. “On those other tours, I rely on a range finder. It’s fast, easy and straight to the point. Having to figure out the numbers, I got better at (during the tournament.”
“And just trying to control my emotions. Getting too pumped up is almost as bad as getting down on myself,” Derrick said.
That said, Derrick was still mostly smiles afterward, especially because when he arrived on Friday he entered through the player entrance – whereas as a kid he was always a spectator.
“I always dreamed of going through the gate,” Derrick said. ‘It does make me sad it’s over. It might be my last day, but it’s not my last golf tournament.”
Meanwhile, Locke Monday-qualified. He finished with a two-day 76-75 151. He had 11 pars and two birdies.
“I learned how to stay calm. We had a lot of people following us. For me, that’s a different thing. We had a lot of family and friends out here,” said Locke, a 2013 Joplin High School graduate. “On the first day, there were a lot of nerves.”
Locke has played several mini-tour events the past couple of months and expressed optimism that he had some momentum coming into the tournament.
“I’ve worked full time, with various jobs, but I’ve worked with my dad the past three or four years doing construction so that I can play in events like this,” Locke said.
All this came on a day when David Kocher moved to the top of the leaderboard. He’s 15-under par 129 after a 63 and 66. He had seven birdies and only one bogy on Friday. Kocher, 26, played at the University of Maryland and turned pro in 2018.
In his past four tournaments, Kocher has tied for 37th, 42nd, 44th and 69th.
Taylor Montgomery and Kevin Roy (13-under par 131) are tied for second, and Robby Shelton and Kevin Yu are tied for fourth.
One guy to keep an eye on, too, is Austin Eckroat, who is tied for sixth at 11-under par. His cousin is Trevor Vance, the longtime groundskeeper of the Kansas City Royals who was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in May.
Eckroat is a 2021 graduate of Oklahoma State University. He has had three top-18 finishes the past three tournaments, including a runner-up last week in Springfield, Ill.