LA CROSSE – Make no mistake, first-round co-leaders Craig Czerniejewski, Joe DeRosa and Ryan Helminen will be trying to win the Wisconsin PGA Professional Championship on Tuesday.
Of nearly equal importance, however, is that they finish among the top five in order to qualify for the 2020 PGA Professional Championship, to be played in April at the Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa in Austin, Texas.
“There’s a few guys in the section who have played in a PGA Tour event but most of us haven’t, so playing in the National CPC is like our tour event,” Czerniewski said. “The tour (equipment) vans are there, you get TV coverage. It’s a big deal for us.”
Czerniejewski, DeRosa and Helminen led the way in Monday’s first round with 3-under 69s at the La Crosse Country Club. All three have played in the national tournament – Helminen 11 times, Czerniejewski four times and DeRosa once.
“It’s a great experience,” DeRosa said. “Of course, I’d love to get back. It’s our closest thing to an actual PGA Tour event.”
Czerniejewski, 39, the big-hitting head professional at Washington County Golf Course, got off to a red-hot start, opening with four consecutive birdies and adding two more on Nos. 6 and 8 for a 6-under 30 on the front nine.
He stuffed his approach to 1½ feet on No. 1, rolled in a 20-footer on No. 2, made an 8-footer on No. 3, nearly drove the green on the par-4 fourth and chipped to 1 foot, reached the green on the par-5 sixth in two and two-putted and hit his approach to 1 foot on No. 8.
“A little unexpected,” he said, “but I’ll take six birdies on the front nine.”
Czerniejewski cooled off on the back nine with four bogeys and a lone birdie for a 39.
“I hit it a little crooked on the back nine, but I’m happy with the round,” he said.
DeRosa, 41, has been at La Crosse CC since 2001 and admitted he benefited from a home-course advantage, though he did have to arrive early to set up the range and get the carts ready.
“I’ve been here for a long time so I know the course pretty well,” he said. “The course played a little different than it usually does, though. We got a lot of rain yesterday and we played in some rain today and it was kind of a different wind. But obviously, my home-course advantage paid dividends.”
Helminen, 44, one of the top players in the section for more than a decade and a member of the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame, got off to a slow start with bogeys on Nos. 2 and 3. He didn’t make a birdie until the eighth hole but then birdied Nos. 11, 12, 17 and 18.
“I was a little tentative starting out and I finally trusted it,” said Helminen, who teaches at Ridgeway Country Club in Neenah. “It seemed like I started getting more and more confident.”
Helminen, a three-time Wisconsin PGA Professional Championship winner, advanced to the national tournament every year from 2007 through 2017 but missed qualifying last year.
“I don’t play as much tournament golf as I used to,” he said. “My kids are 8 and 11. I’m coaching hockey, bringing them to their golf tournaments. My golf game is kind of secondary as opposed to where it was four or five years ago. I still have the fire to play, though. Hopefully I can play another good one tomorrow.”
Two other players broke par Monday. Jeff Kaiser of the TaylorMade Player Development Center in Madison shot a 70 and Austin Gaugert, who caddies on the Korn Ferry and Symetra tours, shot a 71.
Jim Schuman, a four-time winner of the WPGA Professional Championship, was in a tie for 10th place after a 74. Last week, Schuman won the Wisconsin State Senior Open by six shots.
Defending champion Joe Leonard of Kestrel Ridge Golf Course shot a 77.