The chase is on and Drake Hull is still the target, but he's looking a little closer in contenders' crosshairs.
Leading by four shots after round one, Hull stumbled down the stretch Wednesday and now a large field is in contention at the midway point of the 2019 Vermont Amateur.
Hull's four-shot lead was down to two after he shot 3-over 73. He will be paired with the Country Club of Barre's Bryson Richards when the first of two rounds begins Thursday at Rutland Country Club.
"I'm excited. Drake being as good a player as he is I'm looking forward to seeing how my game matches up against his," said Richards, who has rounds of 70 and 71. "Obviously there will be a little bit of butterflies."
Richards will draw on his experience of having played with Hull in 2017 in the third round at Dorset, where Hull won the first of his two straight titles. Hull posted 69 while Richards, then about to become a junior at U-32, had a poor start and shot 73, finishing third.
"It was probably one of the biggest learning experiences for me because of how poorly I started," Richards said. "I came out a little nervous and a little bit too aggressive, but I've had two years since then."
Richards is not alone in pursuit of Hull (now at 1-under 139), who opened this tournament with a dazzling 4-under 66 that is still the event's low score. Quechee's Pat Pelletier posted 71 and joins Richards at 141; Rutland's Jared Nelson shot his second 71 and is tied for third at 142 with former Rutland member Peter Christenson (71-71), and Brattleboro's Jacob Zaranek (71-72) and Mount Anthony's Corey Jozefiak (72-71) are at 143. Nine players are within six shots of the lead with 36 holes to play, among them two more of Hull's clubmates, Garren Poirier and Logan Broyles (145).
But Hull has some experience of his own on which to lean; he posted a chunky 77 in the third round at the Country Club of Vermont last year, then charged back with a 2-under 69 to win by two in a head-to-head showdown with Max Major.
He was asked what kind of thought process helped him turn things around with only 30 or so minutes between rounds.
"Just remembering that I'm still at the top," Hull said.
"The way I see it, I've won two of these things and no one else in contention has won any," the champion said.
It was a tough scoring day at the 6,200-yard track. High heat, greens that many contestants say are firming up and running diabolically fast, and a logjam on the 12th hole helped push many contestants to higher scores than in Tuesday's opening round. The projected cut after one round was 152 but it swelled to 154.
As the hot midsummer day progressed, many groups played in much closer to five hours than four.
"I've never been on that golf course that long," Hull said. "When we (he and clubmates) play it's usually no more than 3 1/2 hours.
"(The 12th) just killed all the momentum. I was pretty frustrated with the pace after that. It was hard to keep your energy."
Hull's tee shot went right and into the rough on the par-3 12th, where some players arrived only to have to wait 20 or more minutes before teeing off on the 205-yard hole. He had a chunked chip, followed by a shot through the green and down into the bunker left of the green, and wound up with his only double-bogey so far.
Hull bogeyed 16 and 18 and suddenly he had a lead that could completely disappear with one more poor hole.
"I feel fine about it," Hull said. "If it's going to take a circumstance like that to make me make a hiccup it's OK.
"I don't plan on going (backward on Thursday). If anything it's going to free me up a little bit."
Richards had big saves on the third and 18th holes, the latter with a pitch and a 12-foot sidehill putt. On the par-3 third, the lefty pushed his tee shot onto the plateau above the green. A so-so lob shot left him 22 feet to the hole but he made the putt.
Richards credited the save to his 15-year-old brother Riley, who was on his bag.
"He overruled my line," he said.
Earlier in the day, Nelson recalled that St. Johnsbury's Alex Rainville had a big number to open the 2015 Am at Champlain and charged back to win.
"What was it, five or six shots?" he asked about the margin Rainville had to overcome on the last day.
Nelson had two birdies and three bogeys on Wednesday, avoiding a fourth of the latter on 17. He rifled his 5-iron tee shot into the trees, chipped out, hit his approach 10 feet above the hole but made the par-saving putt.
"I'd just like to have a chance tomorrow," he said, and now he has it.
So does Poirier, who was 6-over par through eight holes on Tuesday but has made a determined comeback. He shot 73 that day, followed by Wednesday's 72.
"I'm hitting it good. You've just got to hang in there," he said. "This place can eat you alive."
"You can make a lot of birdies if you go for it at the right time," said Jozefiak, who finished tied for fourth at Rutland in 2008. "If you're smart you can put up a low number."
Jozefiak was in the process of doing just that on Wednesday when he came to 16, where his 3-metal tee shot strayed and he took double bogey. At one point he was 3 under par.
He's thinking he's going to need that kind of number to keep pace.
"I would be surprised if Drake didn't come back and shoot a low number in the morning," he said.
Zaranek had a good ball-striking day but struggled on the greens. Yet, the junior collegian from Fairfield University is coming off a big U.S. Am qualifier (including a 65 which helped him finish second) and has some great scores in competition, including an 8-under 64.
A man cutting his teeth at this level is Christenson, who made his first Am cut in six attempts with the help of a 10-foot, downhill birdie putt on 12. Christenson plays out of Woodstock, where he is employed.
"I'm just happy to make the cut at this point," he said after finishing his round in the morning.
And now he finds himself just three back with his best back-to-back rounds (71s) in competition.
The field will begin Thursday's play at 8 a.m. off the first and 10th tees, followed by short break and the fourth round. The leaders will go off the 10th in the morning round and off No. 1 in the afternoon.
But Hull will be focused on shot one of round three with Richards and take it from there.
"(Richards) has got a good game and I'm sure he's going to play well," he said.
And if history is any indication, so will Hull.
NOTES: Rutland won its sixth straight McCullough Cup team championship over the Country Club of Barre, 570-593. The Rutland team members were Hull, Poirier, Broyles, Nelson and Frankie Sanborn. ... Sanborn has not played much golf this year because he and his wife, Jackie, welcomed daughter Mia eight weeks ago. Sanborn posted 74 on Tuesday and 72 on Wednesday and is seven shots back. "I'm trending in the right direction," he said with a smile. Sanborn's best round at Rutland is a 65.