ELIZABETHTON — Cayman Ratliff readily admits to how much he loves Elizabethton Golf Course, and nothing that happened on Friday changed his mind one bit.
The 18-year-old East Tennessee State signee continued the love affair during the first round of the Carter County Bank East Tennessee Amateur.
Ratliff provided some early Independence Day fireworks with four consecutive late birdies during a six-under-par 66 that left him two strokes clear of the field.
“I love this golf course,” he said. “It fits my eye. It’s really short. It’s just a lot of wedges and I practice my wedges a lot. On the back nine I had four holes in a row where I had exactly 80 yards in. It was perfect, can’t be better.”
Boddie Bible of Greeneville shot 68 and Joe Brooks of Franklin, North Carolina, shot 69. Eight players in the field of 60 broke par.
Marc Runyan posted a 68 to grab the overall seniors lead.
After opening last year’s East Tennessee Amateur with a 78, Ratliff has solved the puzzle of Elizabethton. Since then, he has played five competitive rounds at the course in 26 under par. Counted in that total is a 64 from the high school district tournament.
“I’m very happy with that,” he said.
Ratliff, a Sullivan South graduate, bogeyed the final hole for the only blemish on his scorecard, but he didn’t leave the course with a sour taste in his mouth. A string of four birdies in a row from the 14th through the 17th holes put him in a in pretty good frame of mine.
“I started putting well toward the end,” he said. “I can’t be too mad at the way I ended.”
Ratliff has qualified for the U.S. Public Links Amateur and will play in the Tennessee Junior Amateur, where he is the defending champion.
But first, he’s chasing a tournament he has been playing since he was in eighth grade.
“This is THE amateur tournament around here as far as invitationals,” he said. “I grew up playing in this thing and have always looked up to the guys who have won it. It would be nice to be right in the mix with them.”
Ratliff will begin his career at ETSU when he reports to school in late August.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” he said “I’ve always looked up to the guys at ETSU. They’re great golfers.”
Bible finished second in the Graysburg Hills Amateur and sixth in he Link Hills Invitational.
“Today I just putted really well,” said Bible, whose round was jump-started by an eagle at the par-five sixth hole. “I told myself if you keep it in front of you, you can get some putts to go in. If you drive it sideways, it’s tough. I drove it really well today, too.”
Also breaking par were Mitchell Sutton and Tyler Lane at 70 and Chip Spratlin, Dakota Norton and James Beckner at 71.
Meanwhile in the senior division, Runyan was one over par at the turn before getting hot with the putter on the back nine to the tune of 31. Five birdies put him in position to challenge for a tournament he won in a six-hole playoff in 2009.
“If I could finish the tournament eight under or 10 under, I’d take my chances,” said Runyan, who opened with bogeys on the first two holes. “It’s a grind. You just try to play the next hole.
“You just try to get it in there about 10 or 15 feet and I made three or four in a row. I kept it away from the bad spots. You didn’t want to be above the hole or where you were sideways.”
Jeff Isaacs shot 69 for second place in the overall senior division. Tony Gouge, Bill Hardin and Dwight Scott each shot 70, while James Fender, coming off a victory at the Link Hills Invitational, had a 71.
Five-time defending senior champion Mike Poe opened with a 78 that included a 10 on the par-five 11th hole, where he hit two balls out of bounds. One of Poe’s six overall senior championships here came when he erased a 10-stroke deficit on the final day.
The field in the championship flight will be cut to the low 30 and ties after today’s second round.