Brandon Gama knows a thing or two about the Santa Barbara Golf Club course.
He’s only played it countless times.
On Saturday, Gama used his course knowledge and skillful game to put seven birdies on the card en route to a first-round 4-under 66, which was good enough for a one-shot lead in the 61st Santa Barbara City Championship.
Former San Marcos High standout player Thayer White is second heading into today’s second and final round. White shot a 3-under 67.
It’s been 12 years since Gama won his only Santa Barbara City Championship in 2008. He’s primed to end that drought today when he tees off in the final group at 11:33 a.m.
“The pins were good today,” Gama said after the first round. “You had to hit it in the right spots. When they put the pins in good places, it can be pretty tough.”
Gama got off to a good start with a birdie on the par 4 first hole. His only mistakes came in the form of a bogey and a double bogey.
“I was just trying to swing within myself, nothing forced,” he said. “I just tried to hit everything smooth. That’s what I did today, just hit everything as smooth as I could. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but that was my swing thought today.”
Gama turned in a strong back nine with birdies at the par 4 11th, the par 3 13th and the par 4 14th holes.
“I’m trying to make it a nice smooth motion with no tension out there,” Gama said.
This year’s field of 96 players is the biggest championship flight in recent memory. It includes former Santa Barbara High standout Jack Perry, who is right in the thick of things after a 2-under 68, and New York Mets star and Santa Barbara Native Jeff McNeil, who is in a tie for 15th after a 2-over 72.
The tournament is usually played every year during Memorial Day weekend, but because of COVID-19, it was pushed back to this weekend. It’s an opportunity for McNeil to play the game about which he is so passionate, and do it in a competitive environment. Had the tournament gone as scheduled in late May, McNeil would have been with the Mets and missed it.
“It feels great,” McNeil said. “I think this is the first time I’ve played this tournament since I was in high school. It just happened to work out by being this weekend, and I had a blast.”
McNeil, who brings his clubs on the road when the Mets travel, was pleased with how he hit the ball.
“I actually hit the ball really well,” he said. “I played La Cumbre (on Friday) and didn’t hit the ball that well but still scored pretty well, and today I hit the ball really well but just didn’t score. Hopefully (today) I can get something going and string some birdies together. You can go extremely low on this course, so hopefully I can make some putts and make some birdies.”
Perry, who led the Santa Barbara High boys golf team to the 2010 state championship, is back playing the amatuer ranks after giving it a go with the professional game when he finished college at Northwestern.
He was pleased with his opening round and looks forward to making a run at Gama and the rest of the field in today’s final round.
“I got a lot out of my game today,” Perry said. “I didn’t hit many fairways, but I really got up and down a lot and made a lot of putts. (Today) I’m just going to go out and focus on my target and swing hard and be aggressive.”
White carded five birdies and two bogeys for his 67. He’ll be in the final group with Gama today, trailing by one.
“I’m going to know exactly where the leader is at and what I’ll have to do in (today’s) final round,” White said. “You want to put yourself in good position to win, and that’s what I did. My goal (today) will be to hit the greens and make some birdies.”
Another Santa Barbara golfer, George Downing, is right there as well. Downing finished at even-par 70, and sits four shots off the lead.
The players seemed very pleased with the course, which gets a tremendous amount of play throughout the year.
“There are a lot of great players out here this year,” said course general manager Randy Shannon. “They traveled from quite a ways away because there are a number of facilities not hosting very many events (due to COVID-19).
“There have been a lot of new challenges to this pandemic golf with holding events and keeping social distancing. It’s worked out really well.”