AUSTIN – The eagle landed – twice – for Lewis Stephenson in the first round of the 2018 Texas Senior Amateur at The Hills Country Club. The 2016 champion from Mansfield leads a talented field with a 4-under-par 68 that saw Stephenson jar a pair of eagle putts on the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course.
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“I was very fortunate. I eagled the ninth and 11th holes,” said Stephenson, the 58-year-old dentist who finished as the runner-up in the 2017 Texas Senior Amateur. “I don’t know if I’ve ever made two eagles in the same tournament round before.”
The key to both eagles was the second shot, Stephenson explained. He hit a solid drive up the left side of the ninth hole, but his ball ended up a couple yards in the rough. Stephenson then smoked a 3-wood from 250 yards that trundled up close to the hole.
“It was kind of knuckling, and it kind of flattened out,” he said. “It just covered the front bunker and rolled up to 10 feet.”
Two holes later, Stephenson was in the fairway, about 240 yards from the green. He considered laying up to the right side and to attack the back hole location with a wedge. Ultimately, he decided to go for it.
“I hit 3-wood again, and it just hit perfectly on the front edge of the green and it rolled up to about 10 feet, too,” Stephenson said. “They were just two shots that turned out. Sometimes they don’t turn out, but this time they did. I was very fortunate.”
Stephenson leads Southlake’s Michael Lohner by one shot headed into Saturday’s second round of the 54-hole stroke play Major Championship.
Lohner, a 56-year-old entrepreneur, hit 13 of 14 fairways and made seven birdies on the day. That included a birdie-birdie finish on his final two holes to move into second place.  
“It was one of those rounds that could’ve been 5- or 6-under,” Lohner said. “Some days things just go your way. Today was one of those days. There’s a long ways to go, though. I’m not counting any chickens.”
Two shots behind Stephenson in third place is Houston’s Mike Booker, the 2015 Texas Senior Player of the Year. Booker rallied from a slow start – he was 2-over through six holes – to play shoot a 2-under 70 in the first round at The Hills.
“I just hung in there like you have to do,” said Booker, the 63-year-old Founder and President of a financial services company. “I started making some putts. I made a change to my putting grip recently, and I feel really good over the putter right now.”
Booker said he switched to an unconventional grip that encourages a lower, straight-back-straight-through action.  
“It’s a pretty dramatic change,” he said. “I started rolling the stripe (on his ball) straight, even on really long putts. I’m not necessarily making a ton of putts, but I feel really good.”
Four players share fourth place at 1-over 73. That group includes defending champion Ed Brooks from Fort Worth and 2015 champion Rob Kilby from McAllen.
Opened for play in 1981, the Nicklaus Course at The Hills is playing host to its third TGA Major Championship. The classic Hill Country course welcomed the Texas Amateur in 1985, when PGA Tour veteran Scott Verplank won the second of his three Texas Amateur titles. It also hosted the 1991 Texas Amateur; Randy Sonnier won the second of his two Texas Amateur victories.
The Nicklaus Course features narrow fairways with granite outcroppings, stands of live oaks and spring-fed creeks. Finding the fairway off the tee is critical, and the well-placed bunkers and challenging green complexes challenge players tee to green.
The course was in tremendous shape, especially considering the recent deluges in the area. The Hills took on more than 15 inches of rain during the past three weeks. Superintendent Charlie Trammell and his staff worked tireless to bring The Hills into championship condition in short order. The TGA staff and players alike were appreciative of their efforts.
A large contingent of the field attended Wednesday night’s Players Reception, where the TGA handed out two deserving awards.
Former TGA President Malcolm Holland received the Bob Wells Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor given to volunteers. Holland became a TGA Director in 1998 and served as President from 2006-07. He’s also a former President of the TGA Foundation. In addition to his years of leadership and volunteerism in Texas, Holland also served on the USGA Executive Committee from 2013-16.
Also on Wednesday night, John Pierce picked up his 2017 Texas Senior Player of the Year award. A model of consistency, the longtime amateur stalwart from San Antonio won the 2017 West Texas Amateur. He also was a Quarterfinalist at last summer’s U.S. Senior Amateur and finished in third place at the 2017 Texas Senior Amateur.
“It meant a whole a lot to me,” Pierce said. “You look at the names of the guys who have won that trophy those are some really good players. Guys like Mike Booker, Mike Rice, John Grace, I mean golly. It’s pretty cool.”
The second round of the 2018 Texas Senior Amateur begins Saturday at 8 a.m. At the conclusion of play, the field will be cut to the low 54 scores, including ties. For more information, click here.