BY ANDREW McCULLOCH | STAFF WRITER

McALLEN — Familiar faces dotted the course at the 18th annual McAllen Amateur Golf Championship, but a fresh new one sits atop the leaderboard amid tough conditions Saturday at Palm View Golf Course.

Luke Antonelly, a newcomer to the McAllen Amateur out of San Antonio, leads a group of 150 golfers after the first day of the two-day event. He shot a 1-under-par 71 through his first 18 holes at Palm View, making him the only competitor to finish the opening round under par.

“It was a good (round), a lot of ups and downs,” Antonelly said. “I made several birdies and I had some squirrely shots that turned into bogeys and a double bogey also, so it was kind of a mix of all or nothing.”

Antonelly got off to a rocky start bogeying two of his first three holes, but closed strong on the front nine with two birdies and a par on the final three holes finishing 1 under. His back nine was up and down as well with a bogey, double bogey and a trio of birdies to close out the day leading the pack.

However, two regulars in the McAllen Amateur finished closely behind Antonelly: Genaro Davila, also of San Antonio, and Luis Noriega from Tampico, Mexico. The two men each finished with an even-par 72, each sitting one stroke behind first place.

Davila — a two-time tournament winner in 2012 and 2014 — said that despite the tough conditions Saturday, his level of familiarity with golfing in South Texas and at Palm View specifically gave him a distinct advantage over the competition.

“I’ve played here for a long time,” he said. “I played at (the University of Texas) Pan-Am(erican) about 30 years ago, so I’m kind of used to playing windy conditions here in the Valley. So you kind of remember and try to shape the shots, try to not get in trouble.”

Noriega, who traveled up to the Valley from Tampico with several golf buddies this weekend, was happy to be back at one of his favorite courses and lauded its pristine condition.

“All golf courses are different, but this golf course is special. It’s always in great shape for tournaments,” Noriega said. “It’s great competition from all parts of the country and all parts of our country, Mexico. It’s the best tournament here in the Valley.”

Coming into the day with a heat index projected to exceed 110 degrees, an overcast sky in the morning hours made for surprisingly cool conditions on the links. Instead, it was the wind — with gusts ranging from 20 to 30 mph — that made things difficult and derailed several seasoned competitors.

Ron Kiby tees off during the McAllen Amateur Golf Championship at Palm View Golf Course on Saturday June,22,2019 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

“(It’s) probably as severe as we’ve had, if not the most severe,” said Ron Kilby, a three-time McAllen Amateur champ and decorated local golfer. “I don’t ever remember it being this windy. We always have wind in South Texas, but never this windy.”

The wind was so extreme that it changed the calculus on the course for many top participants in this weekend’s tournament.

“Playing in the wind, not too many people can actually handle that,” Davila said. “Going for second shots on par 4s is difficult because you really have to work the trajectories correct for whatever you have in front of you. I think approach shots to the greens were the key.”

“The wind is very hard and you have to change a lot of clubs. You have to make very difficult kinds of shots,” Noriega said. “I think that the key is in the putter, always in the putter.”

The defending champion — Ricardo Samar of Monterrey, Mexico — got off to a rough start in his return to Palm View, citing shoulder stiffness and a pinched nerve in his back, but looks forward to a bounce-back performance in today’s final round. In last year’s event, Samar shot a tournament-best 3-under 69 to come from behind and capture the championship.

His older brother, Jose Luis Samar, shot a 74 on Saturday.

If there was one consensus from the crowded field atop the leaderboard at Palm View on Saturday, it was that the title was anyone’s for the taking.

“The last few times when I won, I was leading and I remember I think I shot like 2 under and 3 under on the front, so I was kind of leading the field. Now I’m one stroke behind and with tough conditions, it’s going to make it a little different but obviously I’m looking forward to it,” Davila said. “I think 1 or 2 under should win it, but who knows. It will be interesting. We’ll see what happens.”

“I don’t really have any expectations out of my game,” Antonelly said. “I don’t get to practice as much as I’d like, so I’m just going to have to go out there and hit the shots I want to and see what it adds up to.”

The final round of play in the 2019 McAllen Amateur Golf Championship is set to begin at 7:35 a.m. this morning at Palm View Golf Course, with the championship flight teeing off around 1:30 p.m.