McCORMICK, S.C. - John Engler's return to competitive golf Thursday at the Kandy Waters Memorial Classic couldn't have started out more auspiciously.
From the moment he pulled in the parking lot at Savannah Lakes Village's Monticello Golf Club, fellow competitors warmly welcomed him back after more than a year's rehabilitation from an ankle injury.
Then, at 8:15 a.m., Engler hit a 303-yard drive on the first hole, which he birdied.
Walking down the first fairway, Engler turned to his caddie, cousin Matt McKnight, and said, "Man, I was dang nervous there. He said, 'Yeah, I could tell.' He noticed I didn't say anything to him, and that's just not me."
The ending of the day, at least on the golf course, wasn't as enjoyable for the 25-year-old Augustan. Standing at 2-under par through 16 holes, Engler made bogey on No. 17 and double bogey on No. 18 for 1-over-par 73.
He's seven shots off the lead of Simon Nash and Scott Piercy in the NGA/Hooters Tour event.
It had been 13 months to the day since Engler played a competitive round, at a Hooters Tour stop in Albany, Ga. The next day, Engler was in a car accident in Johnson County, Ga., that killed two people and left him in critical condition for eight hours with a concussion and a compound fracture of his right ankle.
"From what I heard, a lot of people said they didn't think he was going to be able to come back," said Jack Croyle, who shot 73 on Thursday and was playing in the group in front of Engler's. "I told him this morning when I saw him, 'It's fantastic to see you out here.' That's all I could think to say to him. I was applauding him a few times when we were on the course."
Croyle and Engler played against each other in junior and college golf. They were also paired in the first three rounds of the 2000 Georgia Amateur Championship, which Croyle won.
"I think the friendships is what I missed the most (during his absence)," Engler said. "The guys I saw today for the first hour before I played, it was pretty special. It's a competitive game, but we're friends."
With four birdies, Engler showed flashes of his All-America form at Clemson, where he won the 2001 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
"It's been a special day," Engler said afterward. "Once I got out there, it was everything I thought it would be."
It has also been 13 months since Engler, who still limps on his ankle, walked 18 holes. He's only been able to walk nine holes for the past month.
The fatigue in the ankle might have played a part in Engler's untidy finish.
He missed the green on No. 17 and failed to get up-and-down. On No. 18, he hit his drive in the right rough.
"For three-quarters of my round, I hit it good," Engler said. "I got a little tired.
"I knew for nine holes how it would be," he said. "I think I did great for nine holes. I don't want to say the reason I played bad on Nos. 17 and 18 is 100 percent because I was tired. No. 18 was a bad swing. I've got to learn how to finish now, walking 18 holes. It took me a month to learn how to finish walking nine holes."
Engler will need a strong round today to make the 36-hole cut. After the second round, the field of 168 will be trimmed to the low 60 and ties. Engler is currently tied for 57th.
There is the possibility that Engler might have to withdraw if his ankle, which he said was tight after the first round, swells up.
"I'll have to play that by ear and see how it goes," Engler said.
"Honestly, that's why I'm here. The doctors don't know. We're getting to the point now where we need to figure out how things are going and how my ankle responds. Can I play 18 holes pain free? Or with pain? Today we'll see, and if I'm fortunate to make the cut, that will be the big see."
Reach David Westin at (706) 823-3425 or email@example.com.