Jeff Ballard's sterling play during the opening round of the 23rd Montana State Mid-Amateur golf tournament came on what was already a very special day for the Billings golfer.
The 6-foot-2 left-hander celebrated his 46th birthday Thursday afternoon in style at The Briarwood by shooting a sizzling 6-under-par 66 and racing to the top of the leader board with a five-shot cushion.
Ballard, a former major league baseball pitcher, had his spirits soar with a dramatic eagle on No. 13 and then followed with birdies on three of his final five holes to finish with quite a flourish.
"I couldn't ask for a better birthday present on the golf course," he said with a grin afterward. "It was really a great run of holes."
Ballard was sitting at 2-under and locked in a tight battle with playing partners Brandon Davison and Dave Eames until he knocked in his pitching wedge from 122 yards out on the 388-yard, par-4 No. 13.
His high-flying ball landed about 15 feet above the hole and to the right of the cup, but the slope of the green directed it right into the hole.
Ballard said he saw his ball rolling toward the cup, but then lost track of it on the slope.
"I figured it would be close, but then someone goes, 'I think it went in.' I was in disbelief. When does it go in? It doesn't go in very often.
"But then I thought to myself 'today is my birthday. I might as well have a good round.' It was a good birthday present. "
Ballard leads by five strokes over Eames, who carded the day's only other sub-par round, a 1-under 71 over the tough 6,990-yard layout. Davison, who birdied his first three holes, is at 72.
Both Eames, who closed with a 1-under 35 on the back, and Davison, who had a 2-under 34 on the front, are also from Billings.
Helena's Parker Heller is at 73, followed by Paul Kunst of Forsyth and Cory Slocum of Missoula at 74. Three more golfers are at 75, including Cal Stacey and Joe Zieske of Billings.
A field of 111 golfers, age 30 and above, are competing in the 54-hole State Mid-Am. Play will continue through Saturday.
Ballard, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles (1987-91) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1993-94), won the club championship at The Briarwood four straight years (1996-99), but now plays more often at Yellowstone Country Club.
"I have played out here probably seven times this year trying to get ready for this tournament," he said.
While he is retired from baseball, Ballard still thrives on competition, finishing second at the 1997 Montana State Amateur in Laurel. However, he has never won a Montana State Golf Association title.
"It would mean a lot," he said of a state championship.
Besides the 90-degree heat, The Briarwood also challenged the golfers with its fast greens, tricky pin placements, black coal slag bunkers and tight fairways on the hilly, forested back nine.
Ballard shot 34 on the front and 32 on the back. Besides his eagle on No. 13, he birdied holes 1, 7, 14, 17 and 18.
"This course to me, it's all about the tee ball, and, of course, putting," Ballard said. "There are so many hazards out here that the tee ball is really at a premium because you get penalty shots if you miss."
He consistently struck the ball well off the tee, with booming drives resulting in birdies on his closing two holes.
But he also delivered with his putter, making a clutch, downhill 20-footer to save par on No. 12 after a rare errant tee shot. On No. 14, he rolled in another steep, breaking 18-foot putt through the fringe for birdie.
"I didn't think I would have kept it within 15 feet of the hole if it didn't hit the hole," Ballard said of that speedy putt. "I wasn't in a very good spot."
He said the downhill putt included "four or five feet of break. I was just hoping to make the par, but it hits the hole and goes in.
"When you shoot a low round you obviously can look back and know you got some good breaks," Ballard added. "Today I certainly got some breaks, but I hit some quality shots, too."
That included landing the ball within six inches for his birdie on No. 7.
It all added up to quite a birthday bash for Ballard, who headed home for cake and ice cream shortly after his day on the course was done.
"I'll have my real birthday at home with my wife (Kristen) and my baby (Kyren)," he said. "That will be my real treat."