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In The Arena: Kowalski Conquers Pittsburgh Open on Home Course

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Darin Kowalski (second from left) and Kevin Shields (second, right) pose after the Pittsburgh Open. (TRI-STATE PGA)

PITTSBURGH — Posting twin rounds of 3-under 68 at his native South Hills Country Club, former Point Park University and Serra Catholic standout Darin Kowalski reigned over a strong field at the Pittsburgh Open this week.

The 34-year-old Kowalski, an accomplished amateur from Bethel Park, outclassed The Club at Nevillewood director of instruction Kevin Shields by two strokes. Those were the only two competitors under par in the Tri-State PGA’s annual 36-hole event.

With the green speeds fiery as usual, South Hills’ sloped, tree-lined layout played tougher than its 6,503 yards would indicate. (Take that observation from someone who missed the 18-hole cut by a mile.)

The difficult scoring conditions didn’t stop amateur Alex Easthorn from posting the round of the tournament in Monday’s opening round, though. The West Liberty University rising junior snatched the 18-hole lead with an eye-popping 6-under 65.

Easthorn led by three entering Tuesday and still maintained his edge with a 1-over front nine. But double bogeys on the par-5 10th and the par-3 12th boiled the tourney down to Kowalski and Shields. When Kowalski eagled the short par-4 13th, chipping in after a strong drive, he took the lead for the first time.

Shields started Tuesday with three straight birdies, serving notice that he was primed for a victory. However, he bogeyed two of four holes to cool off, then finished with nine straight pars. He hit five greens on the back nine but couldn’t convert any of those birdie tries.

Amateur Jimmy Ellis was the only other player to beat par Tuesday, shooting 70 to tie Oakmont Country Club head pro Devin Gee for third at level par.

Two locally-based collegiate players — Tanner Johnson (Peters Township, Ohio University) and Tanner Grzegorczyk (Shaler, Findlay University) — finished in a three-way tie for fifth at plus-2, along with former Upper St. Clair alum Rob Cimarolli. Johnson nailed nine birdies, tying Easthorn and Christopher McKnight for the tourney lead.

Kowalski wasn’t far behind that pace on his home course, sinking seven total birdies plus that pivotal Tuesday eagle. This wasn’t his first big local win, either, as the 2010 Point Park grad also claimed the 2013 Western Pennsylvania Mid-Amateur championship.

The Tri-State PGA summer tour heads to Hermitage on Monday for the 18-hole Tam O’Shanter Open.

FOR THE BIRDS

Jack Katarincic and Chris Tanabe each shot 3-under 69s to lead a group of nine amateur qualifiers at Tuesday’s Western Pennsylvania Open 18-hole qualifying round at Birdsfoot Golf Club in Sarver.

Katarincic, a Shady Side Academy product who is the defending Frank Fuhrer Award winner for top locally-based college golfer, continued a strong summer between his junior and senior years at Miami (Ohio) University. Tanabe, a Quaker Valley grad and defending Pennsylvania Amateur champion, is in a similar spot at Bucknell University.

Former Class AA state high school champ Matt Barto, now an assistant coach at Erie-based Gannon University, tied for third with 2015 Lawrence County Amateur winner Joseph DiMuccio. Both shot 1-under 71s on the undulating, links-like 7,000-yard course.

Patrick Kelly, Amani Dambrosio and Jordan Klodowski tied for fifth at even-par 72, while Nathan Piatt and Eric Poplawski made the Open cut by one stroke at 1 over.

The best pro finish was the Bob O’Connor’s Sasha Lobel, who will be the first alternate after shooting 2-over 74. The second alternate is Birdsfoot’s own Dustin Gaworski.

The second and final qualifying tourney for the West Penn Open is coming up next Tuesday at Diamond Run Golf Club in Sewickley. Shannopin Country Club in Ben Avon Heights will host the 117th Open on the first week of August.

JUNIOR TRIPLE PLAY

The final three-tournament week on the Isaly’s Junior Tour has wrapped, with events at Willowbrook Country Club, Youghiogheny CC and Fox Run Golf Club taking place over a four-day span.

On Monday at Willowbrook in Apollo, Rhianna Firmstone (+6, ages 16-18) and Alexandra Petrochko (+7, ages 11-15) were the girls’ flight winners, while Nicholas Turowski (-6, ages 11-14), Zachary Paper (-1, ages 15-16) and Cole Villa (+2, ages 17-18) won on the boys’ side. Turowski made four birdies in a row on his front nine and won by seven strokes.

On Tuesday at Youghiogheny in Elizabeth, Aaron Didjunas (+5, 11-14), Dante Rosetti (+5, 15-16) and Scott Jordan (+1, 17-18) lifted trophies for the boys, with Marissa Malosh (+16, 11-15) and Lindsay Powanda (+9, 16-18) prevailing for the girls. Also, three boys aced the par-3 18th: Charlie Caputo, Dominic Cerilli and Neil Joon.

On Thursday at Fox Run in Beaver Falls, Petrochko won for the second time this week, with a 3-under total in girls ages 12-15, as did Walker (even) in the boys ages 15-16. Victoria Witouski (even, girls 16-18), Ethan Dai (-5, boys 11-14) and Michael Wareham (even, 17-18) also collected victories. Dai made an event-best seven birdies in 18 holes.

In the girls’ Isaly’s player of the year standings, Petrochko has now won twice and finished second twice, but she still trails leader Malosh in the 11-15 bracket. Powanda (second) and Firmstone (third) crept closer to top dog Erin Drahnak.

On the boys’ side, Scott Jordan leads Nathan Schachner in ages 17-18, Paper stayed ahead of Walker in a sizzling 15-16 battle, and Connor McKenzie is tops in the 11-14 competition.

With less than a month to go in the junior tour schedule, next week features just one event, Monday, July 20 at Latrobe Country Club.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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