Locals storm to top of leader board in West Penn Open

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John Popeck isn't usually one to play for par, but after opening the 54-hole PNC West Penn Open Championship by birdieing holes No. 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 in his first round Monday, Popeck decided against a boom-or-bust approach.

Popeck, 24, of Washington, Pa., kept his head down and carded a bogey-free 6-under first round to take a two-stroke lead into the clubhouse at Indiana Country Club. He stepped back onto the course in the afternoon and cruised to an even par second round.

When Popeck finally let himself look up, he saw some hometown company atop the leader board. Matching him at 6-under was Zack Kempa, a recent IUP graduate, who was one of four golfers to turn in red numbers in both rounds.

The real surprise, though, was Indiana local Jon Mills, 36, who followed an even par first round with a 9-under 62 second round in swirling wind and fading light.

Still, Popeck was plenty happy to take a second-place tie into the championship round today. The three leaders will tee off at 10:33 a.m.

"The goal was to come here, play well and see how the cards fell," Popeck said. "So far they're falling pretty well. ... I tried to go out there and not try to beat the competition but just to play the course as best I can. That's what's going to beat people up -- the course, not the competition."

Popeck could only shrug his shoulders and laugh when thinking back to his torrid start. There was no singularly spectacular moment in his stretch of five birdies in six holes, he said. Just some very steady golf.

"I went on a tear," Popeck said. "The putter was hot. I was hitting well, every fairway and green, and was fortunate enough that the putts kept falling."

Like a starting pitcher making a bid for a no-hitter, the further Popeck got into his opening round, the more difficult it was to keep his mind off the bogey-free run and multiple-stroke lead.

He kept both, but it took a perfect save.

On the 13th hole, a 397-yard par-4, Popeck drove his second shot short and into a nearside bunker. He popped the ball out to the far side of the green and sank a 40-foot putt to salvage par.

"That was the big turning point to keep things going," Popeck said.

Periodic wind gusts played games with shots throughout the afternoon.

"It was tough because the winds were swirling with gusts of probably 20 to 25 mph at times," Popeck said. "Controlling the ball was tough, especially when you were trying to adjust for the wind and then when the ball took off the wind would swirl and yank it."

Popeck, a former standout at Chartiers-Houston High School and the University of Maryland, is back home in Washington these days. He plays regularly at The Golf Club of Washington and The Club at Nevillewood and spends winters playing in Florida.

After falling one stage short of qualifying for the Web.com Tour last fall, Popeck plans to give qualifying school another try later this year.

For now, he has a three-stroke deficit to worry about. And this time there will be no playing for par.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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