Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

ALBANY -- How tough is the 7th annual Albany Amateur Golf Championship?

Just ask former senior champ Bubba Burk, who opened the two-day event at Stonebridge on Saturday with a bang.

"Hey, nobody told me you could hit the ball out of bounds on the first shot on the first hole,'' Burk said.

That's Bubba, the funniest golfer in Albany.

But he had a point. Stonebridge wasn't very giving on Saturday. James Salter took the opening day lead in the men's championship division with a 1-over 73 while two-time defending champ Kathryn Fowler, who fired a pair of back-to-back 69s last year to win the tournament, walked away after one day with a 5-over 76. That was good enough for a five-stroke lead over Kelly Pearce, a former Sherwood star, who won this tournament in 2008. Helen Kirbo, who won in 2004 and 2007, is in third at 83, seven strokes behind Fowler.

Salter leads Josh Crews, a 16-year-old sophomore at Deerfield-Windsor, by one stroke and is three ahead of Craig Taylor, and seven strokes ahead of last year's champ, Spencer Davis, whose putter betrayed him.

"It was a long day,'' Davis said. "I just didn't make any putts. But tomorrow is another day. I'll just shoot the course record and that'll bring me right back in it.''

The tournament moves to Doublegate today for the final round.

"We're going home tomorrow,'' said Salter after the first round. Doublegate is his home course, and he will feel even more at home if he wins the tournament. This is his fourth Albany Amateur, and he finished second last year. He heads "home" with the lead.

It's been a big summer for Salter, who graduated from Auburn and landed a job with Heritage Bank. He is moving from Albany to Valdosta in a couple of weeks but wanted to play in this tournament. It could be an all-Deerfield finish if Salter and Crews stay at the top.

Salter played just about everything at DWS, where he was on the football, basketball and baseball teams, but never played golf. His rationale made sense.

"I played baseball in the spring,'' he said. "I figured I could play baseball in high school and play golf the rest of my life.''

And play it well.

That's what Salter, 22, is doing this weekend. He had a perfect 36 on the front nine -- well perfect in the sense that he shot nine 4s.

"Yeah, all 4s,'' he said. "The par threes were a little bit of a struggle, but I was able to play well on the par fives.''

Salter birdied the first hole, No. 6 and No. 15

"On the back nine I played a little more conservative than I usually do,'' he said. "I kind of settled into the round and wasn't as aggressive. But I'm where I want to be. I've put myself in a position to be in it (today).''

Crews is right there and might have had the first day lead if not for some tough putts.

"I really didn't have a good round,'' Crews said. "I had about 10 lip-outs. I'm looking for an under-par round (today at Doublegate). Hopefully, I can shoot in the 60s.''

Champions will be crowned today at Doublegate in five divisions, including the men's mid-am, where Rainey Owens and Stan Mikle are tied at the top at 80, and a new senior women's division that was added this year. Fran Clinkscales leads at 84, followed by Glenda Eubanks (85), Becky Yager (88) and Sissy Smith (89).

The men's seniors had the best day on the course. Mike Cooper, who won the mid-am last year, fired a 3-under 69 to lead the field, and Tommy Hall had a half dozen birdies and shot a 2-under 70, despite taking a triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 16th hole. Cooper had five birdies -- at No. 3, No. 4, No. 6, No. 9 and No. 17 -- and was 5-under after 17 before he took a double-bogey on the final hole. Last year's champ, Joe Dorner, is at 71 -- just two strokes behind Cooper. Burk, who won the senior title in 2009, bounced back from that opening shot to finish in fourth at 76.

All three men's divisions could come down to the final hole today, but the women are going to have to chase Fowler, who won the tournament as a senior at Southland Academy two years ago and repeated last year after her redshirt freshman season at Ole Miss.

Stonebridge is her home course, and she makes the hour-long trip from Americus four days a week when she is home from school. She knows the greens, fairways, bunkers and burgers.

That's right, burgers.

"They've got a great hamburger at the grill here,'' she said. "It's called the Stonebridge burger. It's one of the best I've ever had. There's a burger in Oxford (at Ole Miss) that rivals it, but the one here is really good.''

So is Fowler, who opened the tournament with a birdie. She had three birdies for the day and was 1-under after six holes, then bogeyed 7,8 and 9, before bouncing back to walk away with the first-round lead.

"I struggled a little bit,'' Fowler said. "I really had to fight for it, but I had some good shots, too.''

That's Fowler, tough and persistent, a competitor whose golf bag is as full of determination as clubs. Still, because this is a local tournament with a taste all its own, the golfers know each other all too well, and the atmosphere on the course couldn't be better.

"It was a great day, playing with Kelly and Helen,'' Fowler said. "It was a fun group. We had a blast.''

So was Burk's first shot -- a blast out of bounds on the first hole.

Burk was laughing at himself after the first round and left Stonebridge smiling, like just about everyone else who competed in this annual tournament that benefits First Tee of Albany, a non-profit organization that promotes education and building character in the youth of the community through golf.