HUMBLE, Texas – Seven players, including Washington’s Steve Wheatcroft, within four shots of the lead at the Houston Open have never won on the PGA Tour. Twelve of them still aren’t in the Masters. One of them includes a journeyman who had to qualify Monday just to get a tee time at Redstone Golf Club.
In a tournament loaded with so many possibilities, one of the big surprises is a major champion.
Stewart Cink has not been heard from very much since that summer day at Turnberry in 2009 when he beat Tom Watson to win the British Open. His highest finish since then was third, and that was in the four-man field at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. In 81 starts since becoming a major champion, he has missed the cut 30 percent of the time. He has plunged to No. 272 in the world ranking.
Cink finished off another solid round Saturday by saving par from the bunker on the 18th hole for a 4-under 68, giving him a share of the lead with Bill Haas.
“Tomorrow is a great learning opportunity for me to get out there and be nervous and perform and try to stay in the moment and let it happen,” Cink said. “I can’t wait.”
Indeed, there will be a sense of urgency in this tournament.
Haas, the co-leader after 36 holes at Bay Hill last week, made seven birdies over his last 13 holes for a 67 and joined Cink at 11-under 205.
Now comes the hard part, 20 players separated by four shots on a course where birdies are available, but the slightest miss can prove costly.
“Tomorrow you’re going to have to play very well,” Haas said. “You can’t just hang on and hope everybody else will fall back.”
Wheatcroft, who only got into this tournament through a Monday qualifier, got off to a good start and fell back with an embarrassing finish. Wheatcroft was tied for the lead when he shanked a shot from the greenside bunker on the 18th, the ball coming out at a 45-degree angle, over the green and almost into the gallery. He made a 15-foot putt to salvage bogey for a 72.
Wheatcroft still was only one shot out of the lead, along with Ben Crane (67), D.A. Points (71) and Jason Kokrak (71).
“If you don’t catch it perfectly, it runs across the green into the water,” Wheatcroft said about his bunker shot. “I opened the club face just trying to hit a high soft one and obviously I missed most of the club face.”
Nine players were only two shots behind, a group that included former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen (65), former world No. 1 Lee Westwood (67), former PGA champion Keegan Bradley (67) two-time major champion Angel Cabrera (69) and Henrik Stenson (68), who is one round away from playing his way into the Masters through being top 50 in the world.
Phil Mickelson finished his round of 67 before the leaders teed off, and he closed with a wedge into 6 feet for birdie. He wound up five shots out of the lead, still within range of trying to add another win before heading to Augusta for the Masters.
“I feel like I’ve got a low round in me tomorrow,” Mickelson said before leaving to meet with former president George H.W. Bush, who attended the tournament Saturday.
Rory McIlroy had a chance to join the mix. Swinging more freely, the world’s No. 2 player was poised to reach 6 under for the tournament with a superb bunker shot to 5 feet for birdie on the 13th hole. He missed the putt, and then missed the 3-footer he had left and wound up with a bogey. McIlroy short-sided himself on the next hole for bogey, and dropped another shot on the 18th with a tee shot into the water. He had to settle for a 71 and was at 214, nine shots behind.
“It’s the best I’ve hit it on the golf course this week,” McIlroy said.
Wheatcroft and Kokrak are among seven players within four shots of the lead who have never won on the PGA Tour, and Wheatcroft still has high hopes of winning to get a two-year exemption in the big leagues. He would be the first Monday qualifier to win since Arjun Atwal in August 2010 at the Wyndham Championship.
He would be the ultimately long shot, especially after the tweet he posted upon learning McIlroy had signed up for the Texas Open next week. Wheatcroft wanted everyone to know he signed up for the Texas Open qualifier on Monday, though a top-10 would get him into the field at San Antonio. A win would allow him to play two majors and two World Golf Championships this year, and just about anywhere he wanted on tour for the next two years.
Cink is going after his seventh tour win, though he made it sound like he was trying for his first.
“I’ll be nervous and I definitely will not be ignoring the fact that I’ll feel a little bit nervous tomorrow,” he said. “But that’s just natural human behavior and I’m looking forward to it. To get back in the hunt is what you play golf for when you’re out on the PGA Tour. It’s a lot of fun and hard work, but I can’t wait.”
Cink can only hope he hasn’t forgotten how to finish, though experience could play a big factor.
Oosthuizen was the 54-hole leader in the Houston Open last year. Bradley was relieved to finally see some putts go in the hole. Westwood has started slowly this year, but he feels his game is rounding into shape at Augusta.
“There isn’t a lot of experience at the top of the leaderboard,” Westwood said. “There are some tough shots out there. Few birdie chances if you’re hitting it well.”