NORMAL — Mike Cushing raced in a 40-foot birdie putt from the fringe at No. 18 to complete a 7-under-par 65 during Saturday's first round of the 58th Bloomington-Normal Medal Play at Ironwood Golf Course.
Moments later in the clubhouse, the defending champion knew it was hardly time to celebrate.
"It was one of those days where I turned a 67 or 68 into 65. But looking at these scores, you need to," said Cushing. "It's awesome. I'll be lucky and may be in the lead or right there, but it's fun."
Cushing did hold the top spot. However, par took a beating as firm fairways and soft greens led to 18 under-par rounds among the 62-man field.
Alan Bardwell, the 2012 champion, fired 67 while 2016 winner Grant Milling, Logan Stauffer, Rob Wuethrich and Matt Maskel all came in with 68s. Two-time champion Jeff Niepagen was among a four-man group at 69.
It was the most under-par rounds in the Medal Play since 2006 when 21 were recorded in the first day at Prairie Vista Golf Course.
The cut for the 32-man championship flight came at 76. The second round will be held Sunday morning at Ironwood before the low 18 in the championship flight play a final round beginning at 1:30 p.m. at Crestwicke Country Club.
"It will be a little different going to the back tees tomorrow," said Cushing as the regular tees were used Saturday. "It's pitch and putt right now with the soft greens. We'll see how it goes."
Cushing became the third golfer in Bloomington-Normal Golf Association history to win the City Match Play, Two-Man Best Position and Medal Play in the same year in 2017, joining Tom Kearfott (1994) and Kyle English (2009).
That run ended in June when he lost to Joe Bierbaum in the Match Play quarterfinals. Cushing and Kearfott were beaten by Michael and Branden Mounce in the Two-Man semifinals last month, a couple days after Cushing tied for 22nd in the Illinois State Amateur at Bloomington Country Club.
The 43-year-old Cushing knows this year is coming to a quick close.
"I have not had a good summer. The State Am was disappointing. I had a bad third round (shooting 76)," he said. "I had played so well and was right there in the top five or six.
"I don't know if priorities are changing a little bit or there's a little pressure from winning all three last year. Weird things happen."
Cushing birdied Nos. 3, 5, 7 and 9 to shoot 32 on the front. He got to 6-under with birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before his only bogey at the par-3 13th.
Then came two bonuses with a long birdie putt on the par-3 No. 16 before the unexpected final birdie at the 18th.
"The front nine was pretty easy. I didn't miss a lot of shots and don't think I missed a green (in regulation)," said Cushing. "It was smoke and mirrors on the back.
"The greens were rolling great. They weren't overly fast, but smooth and you could make putts and not be scared of anything. They were soft, so you could throw it at the hole and they stopped."
Bardwell, 38, got off to a quick start. He birdied both par-3s on the front, and made a birdie on the par-5 No. 7 after having to hit his second shot sideways out of heavy grass, and shot 31.
Birdies at Nos. 11 and 12 got Bardwell to 7-under. However, the back nine par-3s weren't so kind to Bardwell as he took bogey on both.
"I made a couple mistakes coming in and couldn't get up and down on both par-3s after barely hitting off the green," he said.
Yet Bardwell, who finished a stroke behind Cushing and in a second-place tie last year, likes where his game is heading into Sunday.
"I actually haven't been hitting it good for a couple years, but I think I'm hitting it a little better now," he said. "I've got a couple things I've worked on and feel like I'm striking it a little better. I try to get it on the green so I can putt it. That's where I think I excel."
Two of the tourney's hottest players are lurking three strokes back.
Stauffer won the Two-Man title with Joe Rieger, who opened with 69, after finishing seventh in the State Amateur. Wuethrich, 19, took second in the State Am after being second alternate in U.S. Amateur qualifying at Weibring Golf Club.