By amateur Thomas La Morte’s own admission, it wasn’t his finest round, but it was still good enough to keep him atop the leaderboard at the New Jersey State Golf Association’s 98th Open Championship on Thursday at the par-70, 6,520-yard Montclair Golf Club in West Orange.
La Morte, of Haworth Country Club, shot two-over-par 72 for a 66-72-138 total, one shot better than professional Pat Fillian of Echo Lake Country Club, who shot 70-69-139. The crowded leaderboard contains three professionals just two shots off the pace in Tyler Hall of Upper Montclair Country Club (66-74-140), the first-round co-leader and two-time champion, former champion Brian Gaffney of Essex Fells Country Club, and Marc Issler of Toms River Golf Center (68-72-140).
Another three stand at 141 including 26-year-old amateur Troy Vannucci of Little Mill Country Club, who shot a 67, the low round of the day.
The championship was originally scheduled to be completed on Thursday, but torrential rains on Wednesday added a day to the championship. On Friday, the 52 golfers who shot 148 or better return for the final 18 holes of the $75,000 event, which is presented by The Lincoln Motor Company. The low professional receives a check for $15,000.
La Morte and Fillian will be paired in the final group, teeing off at 8:48 a.m. on Friday.
“If you had told me Tuesday morning that I’d be leading the tournament after two days, I would have said, ‘Heck yeah!. Where do I sign up?’, ‘’ said La Morte, 22, a recent graduate of Campbell University in North Carolina where he was a member of the golf team. La Morte won the NJSGA Amateur Championship in 2016.
“I’m happy to have this opportunity. It was a grind out there. I hit so many good shots today. I had 16 pars, no birdies and two bogeys. It wasn’t my day, but I grinded and managed to shoot a good number,” he said.
His bogeys came on his back nine, the par-4, 460-yard No. 12 and the par-3 198-yard No. 14. La Morte noted: “I hit my best shot of the day on No. 14, and still made bogey.
“I’m proud of the way I battled the last two rounds. I’m going to be in the final group tomorrow. I expect the greens to be a factor. They will be faster. If I hit every shot as well as I can, I’ll have a good day tomorrow.
“I didn’t come in here trying to win. I just came in here trying to play well and if I play as well as I can, then good things will happen,” La Morte said.
Fillian has recorded his share of birdies. In Tuesday’s first round, he had eight birdies and shot even-par 70, and he added two more against one bogey in Thursday’s second round.
“I played really steady today, but I left a lot out there,” said Fillian, 32. “I didn’t make a lot of putts today. I improved on how I hit the ball from the first day. I hit it really well all day, fairways and greens. I didn’t make any mistakes and I didn’t let the greens get to me.
“Tomorrow, I just want to play the way I’ve been playing and keep the ball in front of me.”