ST. CHARLES — Brian Carroll arrived at Royal Hawk Country Club at 6:30 a.m. Monday, fully six hours ahead of his tee time.
When you're opening the golf shop and the 67th Illinois Open is being played outside the shop door, it's something you have to do.
Carroll was still fresh when he arrived at the first tee, scoring 6-under-par 66 to tie for the lead with Christian Heavens of downstate Fairview Heights, whose score was crafted in the morning.
Both will play at Royal Fox Country Club on Tuesday, as the two halves of the 254-player field switch courses in the second round. Wednesday's final round for the low 50 and ties, or anyone within 10 strokes of the lead, is at Royal Fox.
Carroll and Heavens hold a one-stroke lead on a quartet of challengers, including amateur Nick Hardy, who overwhelmed the field in winning the Illinois Amateur last week at St. Charles Country Club. Hardy shares third place with 2013 runner-up Carlos Sainz Jr., Brandon Holtz and Andy Mickelson, a two-time winner on the national club professional scene.
All of the above played at par-72 Royal Hawk, the easier of the two courses. Royal Fox, a par-71 layout, yielded only one under-par score, a 69 by amateur Zach Burry. Across the two courses, 34 players broke par and another 11 were at par.
For Carroll, who knows Royal Hawk intimately, it was a case of following his plan. "I know how to play this course, but I'd only played it twice this year before last week," Carroll said. "I knew the angles I wanted to take, had my game plan."
He also received a bonus, a birdie on the first hole via a 12-foot putt.
"I never really birdie the first hole, because I lay up short to avoid the trouble," Carroll said.
A birdie on the second followed, but converting a 5-foot putt for eagle on the fifth hole moved him to 4-under, and even a bogey on the sixth didn't hurt much. Four more birdies in six holes, the longest putt from 15 feet on the par-4 seventh, placed him 7-under with the last six holes, the toughest part of Royal Hawk, to negotiate. Aside from a 6 on the par-5 13th, it was all pars for a 66.
"You never know when this is going to happen," Carroll said. "I've played a lot of average rounds in section stroke plays, sloppy, too many bogeys."
Heavens reset the Effingham Country Club course record at 64 in winning the qualifier by eight strokes. A First Tee of the Gateway alumna who went to Georgetown College, earning NAIA all-America honors, and turned pro four years ago, the 27-year-old has been looking for his big break, even competing in the Big Break series on Golf Channel.
This season, Heavens has won twice on mini-tours and wangled an invitation to the Trophee Hassan II tournament on the European Tour, where he missed the cut. He was 37th in last year's Illinois Open.
Heavens' round opened with an eagle on Royal Hawk's par-5 10th and closed with five birdies in the last six holes on the front nine.
Sainz and Mickelson also eagled the 10th in their 67s, while Holtz started uncommonly quickly. He was 5-under after five holes thanks to eagles on the second and fifth and a birdie on the par-4 fourth. Holtz's eagle on the second was set up by driving the green on the 291-yard hole, and was one of three 3s on the hole.
Sainz is scrambling for places to play after losing his PGA Tour card last year. He's played in one Web.com tournament and missed the cut.
Mickelson won the PGA Assistant Championship at PGA Golf Club in Florida last year, captured the TaylorMade National Championship at Pebble Beach, Calif., in March, and took an Illinois Section Monday tournament at Bowes Creek recently. Monday, he shrugged off a first-hole bogey at Royal Hawk and went 6-under the rest of the way to finish at 5-under 67. Like Sainz, he eagled the par-5 10th, smacking a 188-yard 6-iron to four feet.
"That really got me going," Mickelson said. "I found something on swing thoughts about three weeks ago and have been riding that momentum."
Hardy also bogeyed the first, then added six birdies. The Illinois junior has a chance to duplicate David Ogrin's feat, accomplished in 1980, of winning the Illinois Open and Illinois Amateur in the same year. Nobody else has done it.
The great majority of the low scores were recorded at Royal Hawk, with Burry proving the exception. His 2-under 69 on par-71 Royal Fox was about nine strokes lower than the field average for the course on Monday. Burry, with three birdies offset by one bogey, plays easier Royal Hawk today. The field at par-72 Royal Hawk averaged about 74.4 strokes on Monday, while those at Royal Fox, generally the less known half of the field, averaged about 78.1, with no hole playing under par.
At both courses, keeping the ball in play is critical. For example, strict course management paid off for Bryce Emory of Aurora, who scored 68 at Royal Hawk.
"I hit one driver, on the fifth tee, and the rest irons," Emory said. "I did a good job keeping it in play."
Kurtis Luedtke's 68 at Royal Hawk was achieved in similar fashion.
"This course is about managing your miss," Luedtke said. "So it was mostly hybrid off the tee, and driver only four times."
Luedtke's greater feat was in playing. This is the Lombard resident's first tournament since rupturing an Achilles tendon in January.
"Actually it could be a blessing in disguise," Luedtke said. "I've been able to work on my fundamentals."
It paid off. He and Heavens led the field with seven birdies.
Notable: Defending champion David Cooke of Bolingbrook opened with a 1-under 71 at Royal Hawk and is tied for 24th. Brad Hopfinger, the winner in 2014, was among the crowd scoring 4-under 68 at Royal Hawk and is tied for seventh. ... Andrew Godfrey of Homewood was humming along at 3-under until he double-bogeyed the last. He had two eagles, on the fifth and seventh holes, and no bogeys. ... Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, in on a sponsor exemption, scored 27-over 89 at Royal Hawk and is next-to-last among the 250 who completed 18 holes...Vince India, last year's runner-up, withdrew to play in this week's Web.com tournament in Hayward, Calif.