BOYNE FALLS - The Tournament of Champions at Boyne Mountain Resort is clearly a comfort zone for Andy Ruthkoski.
"It's being comfortable in the experience," said the defending champion and mini-tour professional from Muskegon who shot an 8-under-par 64 on the Alpine Course Monday to set a torrid pace in the first round of the 23rd Tournament of Champions.
"I think on this golf course experience really pays. I lost in a playoff in 2011, and last year I could draw back on what happened that caused me to get in the playoff rather than think about why I didn't win. That helped. Last year I came in one shot ahead of what I think would have been a five-way playoff. I think the experience here helped."
Ruthkoski, 31, had just a two-shot lead on ageless five-time champion J.R. Roth, the Michigan native who now works at San Juan Country Club in Farmington, New Mexico.
"I knew (Andy) went deep, but I didn't know it was 64," said the 56-year-old Roth. "We obviously can't let him get too far out in front of us."
A trio of golfers shot 69 including 2013 Michigan PGA champion Brian Cairns of Fox Hills Learning Center in Plymouth, George Bowman of Oakhurst Golf & Country Club in Clarkston and Bob Ackerman of Ackerman Golf in Commerce Township.
Five golfers shot 70, including Aya Johnson of Muskegon, a University of Wisconsin golfer who checked in as the low woman in the 54-hole tournament that brings together men, women, juniors, seniors, professionals and amateurs competing against each other from three sets of tees for the same championship.
Each player in the field has won a Michigan major golf tournament or state title to earn the invitation to compete. The top 50 scorers and ties make the 36-hole cut after Tuesday's second round. The tournament is sanctioned and administered by the Michigan PGA.
Ruthkoski, the 2007 Michigan Open champion who recently Monday qualified and played in the PGA Tour's stop in Milwaukee (U.S. Bank Championship), said he has been playing a lot of golf at home recently with fellow Muskegon Country Club golfers Aya Johnson and Reed Hrynewich, a University of Michigan golfer.
"We call it 'The Stable,'" he said. "We just work on our swings together. We all take lessons elsewhere, but we work together, come up with ideas and encourage each other to play well. We also compete against each other almost every weekend. We get at each other on the course. But we keep it fun. It helps you drive to become a better player."
Roth, who with a win this week would eclipse the record of 15 Michigan PGA major titles he shares with Al Watrous, said he got a late start to the season with kidney stones and his game is finally trending up.
"I think I chipped once all day, and that was at 10 and I got up and down," he said.
Like Ruthkoski, the Michigan Golf Hall of Famer is comfortable in a place he has played several times as a former club professional in Michigan in Flint and suburban Detroit.
"The course is maybe in the best shape I've ever seen it, too," he said. "The fairways are perfect. The greens are perfect. It's in very nice shape."
Roth admitted getting the 16th major in Michigan is on his mind. It's the only tournament he is qualified to play in Michigan because it's based on his past record and not his current residence.
"I'm not bashful in talking about it," he said. "I would like to hold it by myself before some other guys get a chance to break it."
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