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Alex Tiong’s Win Puts “International” in the High Plains Amateur

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Malaysian native Alex Tiong came to the United States as a foreign student and to play golf.  Alex Tiong - High Plains Amateur championNow at the age of 25, “T” has his schooling concluded at Dodge City Community College and is working at The Golf Club of Southwind in administration – which means sometimes he steps in as a cook!

Now Alex is the newest champion of the annual High Plains Amateur Championship held at Southwind for amateur golfers of Kansas and Colorado.  The 2014 field also had players from Oklahoma and Texas. The affable Tiong took a few hours off from work during the last weekend of August to test his golfing skills against some of the best players from the region and it paid off.  His 1-under par 141 score was the only one under par for 36 holes, claiming a one-stroke victory over 2012 champion and Southwind member Grant Vollertsen and Zach Kirby, a member of the Dodge City Community College golf team.

Tiong will admit that working at Southwind gives him little time to actually play the golf course.  Hitting balls at the practice range early in the morning or late in the evening is about all that he can do.  So, it is no surprise to hear him say that “playing in the High Plains Amateur was more like practice for me – I just wanted to see what I could do and have fun.”

Tiong started his first round with a bogey on #1 but then proceeded to birdie the next three holes.    Sounds like fun!  He birdied the par three #9 hole to turn at 3-under par 32.  His lack of playing may have caught up with him on the back nine when he double bogeyed both #14 and #16, turning what might have been an over-night lead into a spot in the third-to-last group on Sunday.

Bradley Lane, the KU political science professor, was the star of the opening round.  He was turning heads with his blazing 4-under par 31 on the front nine that included an eagle on the par five #5 hole.  After birdies at #10 and #16, Lane was 6-under par with only two holes left in the round.  Another routine par at the par four #17 hole kept the bogey-free round intact.  Then #18 happened.  Hitting a driver to the widest fairway on the golf course, Lane found the high native grass to the left.  By the time the final hole was completed, a triple bogey was the score.  Lane’s 3-under par 68 was still the best of the day by two strokes over a group of five golfers at 1-under par 70 that included Vollertsen and Kirby.  Topeka junior standout Andrew Beckler also finished at 70.

Defending champion Charlie Stevens of Wichita was six strokes back at 3-over par 74, but he has been known to make up a lot of ground in the final round.  Mark Terranova and David Klaudt both finished and even par 71 and could easily catch Lane on Sunday.

John Bailey - Senior Division championThe Golf Club at Southwind has the perfect descriptive name – the wind almost always blows from the south.  But for a rare Sunday in late August, the players had to deal with a difficult north wind for the final round.

Lane maintained his lead through the first six holes but a string of three bogeys on #7 through #9 was his undoing.  Tiong posted three birdies on the front nine to take the lead at the turn by one stroke.  Of course, the two were not in the same group, so Lane could only guess whether someone was making a run at his lead.  Lane was playing in the final group with Vollertsen who was now only one stroke behind him.  What the former champion Vollertsen did not know was that Tiong was about to pass him.

Terranova was quietly building his case for a High Plains championship by staying at even par through 27 holes.  One bad hole over two rounds can tear it down.  The par five #10 hole is infamous for dishing out high numbers – it’s long with a strong crosswind and the putting green is well protected with bunkers to the right and a pond in front.   Terranova’s approach shot, made from too far out, narrowly missed the putting green and rolled back to the edge of the water.  With the ball not totally submerged, his next play was done without shoes and socks standing ankle-deep in the clear aquifer water.  A strong swing with a wedge produced a plume of water that gave the appearance and result of an “ice bucket challenge” while the ball was advanced one foot closer to the edge of the water.  Shoeless and soaked, Terranova eventually tapped in for a double bogey seven, ending his chance to catch the leader.

With the leaders all playing the back nine the title appeared to be destined for either Tiong, Shawn Audrain - Masters Division championVollertsen or Kirby, who had posted a strong even par 35 front nine and he had birdied the 10th hole putting him at 2-under par in a tie for the lead.

The back nine at Southwind is one of the most difficult collection of holes in Kansas.  The holes are unprotected from the wind and both sides of every hole are bordered by native vegetation that was particularly high and thick this year.  None of the leaders would break par.  Ryley Haas, the former KU golfer, managed to post an even par 36 on the back nine to finish at one-over par 143 giving him a chance at the title should those yet to finish not negotiate the closing three holes played into the north wind.

Tiong, relaxed and enjoying his time away from the job at the club, was not wavering.  Consecutive birdies at #14 and #15 put him at 4-under par for the championship, clearly in the lead as Kirby had bogeyed #12 and Vollertsen lost a stroke to par with a bogey at #13.

With only two holes to play Tiong enjoyed a four stroke lead over both Vollertsen and Kirby.  But Southwind was about to prove why it is such a great championship golf course.  Tiong hit his drive into the high native grass and never found it.  A second ball from the tee was then played from the fairway and well hit to within five feet of the hole.  But then Tiong three-putted for a triple bogey 7.  Both Vollertsen and Kirby, playing two groups back, made a par at #17.  Tiong’s lead would be a single stroke with the difficult 18th hole remaining.

Thinking positively about the 10 birdies he had made over the last 35 holes, Tiong played the final hole with a par and then had to wait to see how his one-under par 141 would stack up against those yet to finish.  In the meantime, he found his usual spot at the grill and put on his name badge and began taking orders for sodas and beers.

Neither Vollertsen nor Kirby could birdie the final hole that would have forced a play-off.  The two sharing runner-up honors to Alex Tiong were not surprised to see him at under-par and atop the leaderboard.  Alex “T” Tiong was the one that was surprised as he had to be called away from the grill to be presented the winner’s trophy!

Southwind member Shawn Audrain won the Master’s Division while John Bailey of Knoxville, TN won the Senior Division.  Both shot 4-over par 146 to post a one-stroke victory in their division.