MARENGO – Cary's Kyle Irlbacker had a hard time explaining how he was able to rattle off six straight birdies Friday at Blackstone Golf Club in the McHenry County Amateur tournament.
"It was crazy on that little stretch of holes," said Irlbacker, who birdied Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. "I don’t know. I just felt comfortable and calm, and it was fun playing with those two guys [four-time county amateur champion Tom Sweetwood of Johnsburg and J.D. Wagner of Lake in the Hills]."
Boosted by his run of birdies, Irlbacker shot a 5-under-par 67 on the 6,734-yard course and leads the 66-player field going into Saturday's final round. Irlbacker, a Western Illinois senior and Cary-Grove graduate, took runner-up in his tournament debut last year.
Irlbacker, who played 36 holes Thursday in a U.S. Amateur Qualifier at Mistwood Golf Club in Romeoville, guessed the last time he played Blackstone was sometime in high school. He trailed the tournament leader by three shots after Day 1 in last year's tournament.
This time, he's the one being chased.
"I'm going to have the same mindset," said Irlbacker, who was 8 under after 11. "Just take advantage of the par 5s and keep the ball in play ... nothing too fancy."
Irlbacker's opening round had the chance to be even more special. He lipped out a putt for eagle on the par-5 ninth hole, and he nearly sank a hole-in-one right before that on the par-3, 178-yard eighth, missing by about a foot.
Irlbacker, who started playing golf as a freshman in high school, said he never had made six birdies in a row. Sweetwood, the tournament winner in 1999, 2000, 2005 and 2014, came away impressed by the 20-year old's sweet swing and clutch play.
"Kyle played a [heck] of a round," Sweetwood said. "He didn’t miss anything. He putted well, he hit the ball straight, he hit the fairways and put himself in the right position, and that’s how he executed. It was fun to watch. He was fabulous."
St. Norbert junior Jack Markham, a Barrington graduate, was one of two golfers to shoot in the 60s. He recorded a 3-under 69 and trails Irlbacker by two going into Saturday's final round.
As is Irlbacker, Markham is playing in his second county amateur. He won the A Flight in his debut.
The tournament, which has rotated courses throughout McHenry County since it started in 1984, is being played at Blackstone for the first time.
Markham ended his first round with four birdies and an eagle on the par-5, 543-yard 12th hole.
"It's very similar to a Jack Nicklaus design, with massive greens and big fairways," Markham said. "You can be a little [wild] off the tee, but it can still be very challenging on the greens. It's a really fun course. I missed in the right spots, and when I had an opportunity to make a birdie, I made a birdie."
Twenty-one golfers recorded scores in the 70s Friday. Lake in the Hills' Kris Grabner is third with a 70, Wagner is fourth with a 71, Crystal Lake's Riley Bauman (72) is fifth, and Algonquin's Ben Murphy, Barrington's Pat Becker and Crystal Lake's James Michaelson are tied for sixth with 74s.
Dominic Leli, a Prairie Ridge graduate making his tournament debut, shot a 75, including a 1-under 34 on the back nine.
"Playing with guys from the area, it's a lot of fun," said Leli, an incoming freshman at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. "The course was in great shape. I was 5 over on the front ... so I'm just going to come out tomorrow, try and go lower, and shoot for under par.
"It's going to be hard to shoot for Irlbacker, but I'll see what I can do."
Golfers are split into four flights Saturday based on their scores Friday.