Lifting state’s stock

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (left) talks with golf professionals Cliff Kresge and Chris Anderson, both from Florida, during Thursday’s opening round of the National Mining Association Pete Dye Classic.

Gov. Joe Manchin appreciates excellence.

He also loves seeing the best of West Virginia promoted.

Manchin, celebrating his birthday Thursday, got to experience both during a stop at the Pete Dye Golf Club for the opening round of the third annual National Mining Association Pete Dye Classic.

“You can follow them around and be amazed at how these guys can play the game with ease,” the governor said.

On the course, one member of the Nationwide Tour field was particularly hot as he charged to the top of the 156-player field.

Michael Long, a New Zealand native and current resident of Australia who will turn 28 Sunday, carded a 9-under-par 63 to grab the first-round lead. It’s one off the course record of 62 set by winner D.A. Points in the 2004 Pete Dye Classic.

“That front nine was something crazy,” Long said.

Long, who had moved up to the PGA Tour for the 2002 and 2005 seasons, started his round with two birdies, a par and a bogey before a run of five straight birdies.

“I made a birdie on No. 5 after bogeying No. 4, and it snowballed from there,” Long said.

He hit 12 of 14 fairways, was on 17 of 18 greens in regulation and needed only 29 putts in a round “you’d like to bottle up and use again another day.”

John Mallinger trails by three after firing a 66, while Boo Weekly is one more stroke back in third place.

The Nationwide Tour’s leading money winner in 2006, Johnson Wagner, and Tripp Isenhour, No. 3 on the money list, are tied for 56th after each had an even-par 72. A win would be the third of the season for either golfer and would earn him an immediate “battlefield” promotion to the PGA Tour.

A total of 78 golfers are even par or better after the first round. The second round gets under way at 7:30 a.m. today.

Manchin noted the event is a fan-friendly one.

“(The players) are very friendly,” he said. “They’re very approachable and personable. It kind of gives you someone to follow. I really felt close to Jason Gore last year when he won, and we spent a little quality time together. Now I’m always looking for him on the PGA Tour. It makes it much more interesting.”

Manchin appreciates the exposure West Virginia gets from the event, which pays a purse of $600,000, including $108,000 to the winner.

“It gives another venue for our state for tourism, for economic development and everything,” Manchin said. “Golfing is a big-dollar sport. It brings a lot of tourist dollars to our state. It’s something we can even expand on.

“With the exposure we receive from Pete Dye, especially on TV’s Golf Channel and all the high-caliber golfers who are coming here whom we see playing on the (PGA) Tour, like Jason Gore, I think it helps lift our stock pretty high.”

West Virginia was heavily financially involved with the tournament leading up to the initial event in 2004, but much less so now. Nevertheless, Manchin is hopeful the Pete Dye Classic remains on the Nationwide Tour schedule after the current three-year deal ends with the conclusion of the current event.

“What I’m hearing is that it’s had tremendous financial support and success,” Manchin said. “It’s starting to carry itself. The state has been involved in a very small role. It was a very big role at first and a very small role now.

“That speaks volumes when the private sector steps to the plate the way they have.”

Manchin is now back on his feet after knee surgery earlier this summer.

“It’s a little over six weeks now in the rehab,” he said. “I’ve been religiously doing that daily — twice a day for the first five weeks. I think it’s made all the difference. I’m getting my motion back. I’m getting my flexibility and my extension and my strength back. I feel good.”

He admits that he “probably put (the surgery) off longer than I should have.”

“I don’t have that arthritic pain that I had all the time,” he said. “It got to be days where I had a hard time walking. I don’t have that. Every day I have is a better day right now. The quality of life is much better.”

E-mail Cliff Nichols at cnichols@timeswv.com.

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