Former NJSGA Amateur champion Thomas La Morte of Haworth Golf Club and two-time Open champion Tyler Hall of Upper Montclair Country Club fired rounds of 4-under-par 66 to share the lead after the first round of the 98th New Jersey State Golf Association Open Championship, presented by The Lincoln Motor Company. Play resumed today at 10 a.m. after a weather delay at the par-70, 6,520-yard Montclair Golf Club in West Orange.

The 54-hole championship is being played over Montclair’s Second and Fourth Nines. The low professional receives a check of $15,000 from the $75,000 purse. Last year’s champion, Luke Graboyes of Watchung Valley Golf Club, who won as an amateur, turned pro and did not meet the eligibility requirements.

La Morte, 22, who won the NJSGA Amateur Championship in 2016, and Hall, 36, who won the Open Championship in 2015 and 2016, each carded rounds of five birdies and one bogey. Veteran pro Marc Issler of Toms River Country Club was two shots back at two-under-par 68.


Among those at one-under-par 69 were a pair of former champions, Brian Gaffney of Essex Fells Country Club, who won in 2010, and Brett Jones of Due Process Stable, who won in 2009, and amateur Mike Graboyes of Watchung Valley Golf Club, the recent winner of the MGA Ike Championship.

Grant Sturgeon of Arcola Country Club, who last year received the $15,000 check as low professional, shot 76 on Tuesday.

After Wednesday’s second round, the field of 124 will be cut to the low 50 scorers and ties for Thursday’s final 18 holes.

“I just wanted to obviously get off on the right foot. I’ve been struggling with my driver and my putter. I’ve been working on things and this 66 is totally unexpected. The course is playing tough with the wind and the greens are really slick. If you were above the hole, you could easily three putt," La Morte said.

“It’s good to get off to a good start because the conditions are going to be tough tomorrow and the next day.”

La Morte, 22, a recent graduate of Campbell University in North Carolina, holed a bunker shot from 20 yards on his seventh hole, No. 16, when he his shot hit the flagstick and fell into the hole. He avoided disaster on his final hole, No. 9, when he pulled his drive into a maintenance area on the left of the fairway. The area was considered an immovable obstruction and he was given a free drop and put his approach onto the green and made par from there.

“The only goal I had today was to commit to each shot. I hit every club in my bag well and hit driver on every hole except the last one,” La Morte said.

Hall underwent multiple shoulder surgeries on his right shoulder in November of 2016, but refused to use that as the reason why he failed to make the cut and defend his title in the 2017 NJSGA Open at Metedeconk National Golf Club in Jackson.

“The reason I didn’t play well last year was that Metedeconk was a bear for me. One bad swing and you’re off your game, and that’s what happened. But this was a really good winter for me. I got back into my training regime and the season has been solid for me,” said Hall, the Director of Instruction at Upper Montclair.

Hall is leading the points list for New Jersey PGA Player of the Year after multiple runner-up finishes in various events. Besides winning two NJSGA Opens, he won the Met Open in 2011 and was runner-up in that event in 2015.

He punctuated his round by sinking an eight-foot birdie putt on the treacherous slanted green of the par-4, 399-yard uphill No. 18.

“Today it felt like everything was coming together for me. My ball striking and putting was great. I want to keep doing what I’m doing. Tomorrow, the weather could be out of our control, so I want to go shot to shot,” Hall said.

Hall spent 10 years playing the mini-tour circuit before returning to his home in Wayne, N.J. His father, Larry Hall, was a long-time golf professional, including a stint as an assistant professional at Montclair.

“This was the place I would come on Mondays and play with the caddies. I loved it because I was a public-course golfer. A lot of good feelings returned today. It’s huge to me having won this before. It lets me know it could be done. Ask any golfer about knowing that he can do it, and he will tell you that it is huge.”

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