BLOOMINGTON — Charlie Nikitas played Bloomington Country Club for the first time on Monday. Happily, what he saw matched what he heard from others beforehand. 

"I hit a lot of drivers. That's kind of my strong suit," said the 19-year-old from Glenview.  "I drive it pretty straight. This place is right up my alley ... I was looking forward to coming here."

Waiting until the last tee time in Tuesday's first round of the 88th Illinois State Amateur Championship didn't bother the left-hander with the long locks, either. Nikitas fired a bogey-free 4-under-par 66 to grab a one-stroke lead heading into Wednesday's second round.

Rob Wuethrich of Bloomington sank a 20-foot birdie putt on his final hole to shoot 67 and tie Derek Meinhart of Mattoon and Jordan Hahn of Spring Grove for second.

Recent Morton High School graduate Tommy Kuhl of Morton, a University of Illinois recruit, was among a four-man group at 68.

Mike Henry of Bloomington and Illinois State's Trent Wallace of Joliet were in a six-way tie with 69s as 15 golfers in the 138-man field took advantage of perfect conditions to go under-par.

After Wednesday's second round, the field will be cut to the low 35 and ties for Thursday's 36-hole finale.

Nikitas, who will be a sophomore on the Miami (Ohio) golf team, started on the back nine. He birdied Nos. 11, 12 and 14 and made the turn at 3-under.

"I was giving myself chances," said Nikitas, wearing a Chicago White Sox cap. "I was hitting it in the fairway, and that's huge out here especially how tight it is, and keeping the ball below the hole. I basically did that all day and tried to avoid big mistakes if I got in trouble."

Nikitas went over the green on the par-3 third, but chipped within 5 feet and saved par. His only other chance at bogey came at No. 5, but he got up and down from 30 yards in front of the green.

Wuethrich, 19, also played in the afternoon group. The Illinois Wesleyan sophomore saved par on his first hole, No. 10, with a 30-foot putt. That was a sign of things to come as Wuethrich had 26 putts for the round.

"I made a couple long putts, but I had a lot of 5- to 6-footers and you have to make those," he said. "That's something I practiced hard this winter. I would go into Shirk (Center) and hit 300-400 putts a day from 5-6 feet because those are the money putts."

Wuethrich sank a 20-foot eagle putt at No. 14 before a bogey on the next hole gave him a 34 on the back side. He started and ended the front nine with birdies, sinking a 20-footer on the 465-yard No. 9 which has been converted to a par-4. 

"I wanted to be below the pin and have a straight uphill putt at it. It was a good read and good stroke right in the back," said Wuethrich, who gave credit to his caddie and good friend, Nick Hodges. "It was a nice way to end it."

Hahn, a senior at Wisconsin, was runner-up last year to Patrick Flavin of Highwood at Calumet Country Club in Flossmoor when he set a tourney record with a 61 in the second round. Hahn didn't hold back Tuesday.

"I hit driver quite a bit. I'm hitting it well, so I'm going to roll with it," he said. "I'll stick with that unless they get some dicey pins."

Hahn fired even-par on the front before going 3-under on the back, including an eagle on the 478-yard par-5 14th when he hit a sand wedge from 122 yards within 18 inches.

Meinhart, 40, showed the mid-amateur guys can still hang with the youngsters. He had five birdies, including a short putt on No. 18.

"I putted it really well today and kept it in front of me and overall didn't make a lot of mistakes," said Meinhart, who was the 36-hole leader in 2015. "I really enjoy this golf course. There's a lot of strategic plays off the tees and into the greens, and I think that really favors some of the older guys, a little bit of wisdom."

Kuhl, 18, didn't get flustered after shooting 2-over on the front. A birdie at No. 11 got him going and he added three more birdies the rest of the way as he played the back nine bogey-free.

"I just tried to stay more patient. I feel like I was putting myself in the wrong places on the greens on the front nine and trying to force stuff, which doesn't get you anywhere on this course," he said. "On the back nine I tried to put myself in the right positions."

Other Bloomington golfers inside the top 30 included Mike Cushing (70) and Eric Gilpin (71). ISU sophomore Daniel Anfield of Channahon also fired 70.

Flavin, trying to become the first repeat champion since Todd Mitchell of Bloomington in 2002-03, opened with 71. Mitchell played his last four holes in 6-over and shot 77.

Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Benson



Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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