By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- It was hard to tell what made Webb Simpson happier on Friday afternoon.
Was it the fact that he was tied for the lead at The Greenbrier Classic or the fact that he played well enough his wife Dowd would likely make the drive up I-77 from Charlotte, N.C., with their baby James to watch him play the last two rounds?
"I told my wife that I'm going to go out and be in the lead so you've got to come for the weekend," a grinning Simpson told reporters just minutes after jokingly asking a Golf Channel reporter if he could say hello to his family on the air.
Mission, as they say, accomplished. And make no mistake, this weekend could be a life-changer for Simpson, who could rise as high as second in the FedExCup with his first PGA TOUR victory.
He will play in the final group on Saturday with Brendon de Jonge, also seeking his breakthrough win. The two are tied at 7 under, one stroke ahead of Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters champ on the comeback trail after wrist surgery.
Simpson made his move Friday on the back nine. He hit a wedge from 85 yards to 6 feet for birdie at the 10th hole, then answered a bogey at the 11th by getting up-and-down from behind the green at the par-5 12th. He added a 12-footer for birdie at the 14th hole and finished it off the 68 with a 7-footer on No. 18 that he called "icing on the cake."
"Starting out I didn't hit very many good shots," Simpson said. "But I tried to keep the ball in front of me and started dialing it in more on the back."
Depending on what happens this weekend, Simpson could play his way into his first World Golf Championships. He currently stands 53rd in the Official World Golf Ranking and anyone who stands inside the top 50 on Monday gets to play in next week's Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
Not to mention, the young man who ranks 15th in the U.S. Presidents Cup roster could threaten the automatic top 10, as well.
Even with everything at stake, though, the low-key Simpson is working hard to keep things in perspective.
"It's all a good feeling knowing I have a chance to win going into the weekend," Simpson said. "But it was just another couple of solid rounds. And this afternoon was trickier with the wind. But I was able to get a couple of coming in, which is always nice."
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- When he was growing up in Zimbabwe, Brendon de Jonge played in some junior golf tournaments against Trevor Immelman, who hails from South Africa.
Asked Friday who was the better player back in those days, de Jonge didn't hesitate. "He was," the 31-year-old said. "Very much so."
Interestingly, Immelman, who won the 2008 Masters, held the first round lead at The Greenbrier Classic after a 64. But de Jonge seized sole possession of the top spot on Friday morning after a 67 that left him 7 under and ended the afternoon tied with Webb Simpson.
Meanwhile, Immelman ended up shooting an even-par 70 and stands in solo third, one stroke behind the leaders.
To see de Jonge leading the Greenbrier Classic is hardly a surprise, though. He finished a career-best solo third a year ago, and the 2003 Virginia Tech graduate has always felt comfortable on the recently-restored and revitalized C.B. Macdonald/Seth Raynor creation. He draws an extra dose of adrenaline from the Hokie Nation fans in his gallery, too.
"I love the changes," de Jonge said. "The changes obviously made the golf course a lot more difficult, but I think they're great. It's a comfortable place for me. A lot of Virginia Tech support, which it's nice. ... It's always a little pick me up if you're struggling a little bit. It's fun. It's nice to hear, 'Go Hokies' on every tee.
"Any time you play sport there, it's a pretty close-knit community, so it's good fun."
Speaking of close-knit. carrying de Jonge's bag this week is his friend Chris McDonald, whom his boss calls a "very, very good player" from Zimbabwe. McDonald, who played at the College of Charleston, was pressed into service when de Jonge's regular looper, Phil Lowe, opted to take a few weeks off back home in England.
"We see a lot of the same things out there, which helps," de Jonge said. "It's nice to have that a little bit of reassurance."
Golf was a family affair for de Jonge back home in Zimbabwe. His father, who is retired from the banking business, once was a 2 handicap while de Jonges's brother played to scratch.
"I played a lot of other sports growing up," said de Jonge, who was recruited by the Hokies while playing junior golf in South Florida. "I actually had to make a choice between cricket and golf when I was 16 or 17."
Judging by his results, de Jonge made the right decision. He was the Nationwide Tour Player of the Year in 2008 and has been a member of the PGA TOUR the last three years. He came close to picking up his first win earlier this season at the Transitions Championship where he went into the final round trailing by one, played in the final group and ended up tying for fifth.
De Jonge came to West Virginia with momentum, too, on the heels of a tie for seventh at the John Deere Classic and a tie for 13th at the Viking Classic. A year ago, although the tournaments were different, he had identical finishes in his two starts prior to The Greenbrier Classic.
"The last couple years I've had a couple stretches where I've played well for an extended period of time," de Jonge acknowledged. "I'm playing nicely coming in this week, so, yeah, hopefully keep it going."
And what would it take to get over the hump this weekend and finally pocket that first PGA TOUR title?
"I think the biggest thing is just getting out of my own way," de Jonge said. "It's very, very difficult to win out here; it's difficult to win anywhere.
"So just sort of staying in what you do, keep going at the same speed you had been the first three rounds if it's the final round. Staying in your own routine I guess is the best way to put it."
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- His bogey-free streak on The Old White TPC ended on his 87th hole in competition.
Not to worry, though. Charles Howell III still finds himself in the hunt at The Greenbrier Classic for the second straight year.
Howell, who has made seven birdies and three bogeys this week, shot his second straight 68 on Friday to move to 4 under. He was three strokes off the lead held by Brendon de Jonge when he finished.
"The changes to course have toughened it up for sure," said Howell, who had 12 birdies and an eagle last year on the way to finishing in a tie for ninth.
"If nothing else, just the firmness in the greens has made it tougher. I don't know if you'll see a 59 this year, although it was exciting to have last year sort of a guy shoot really low. But definitely toughened it up this year."
The Old White TPC has undergone a restoration that included reseeding all 18 greens since Stuart Appleby fired a final-round 59 to win last year. Howell, who is looking to break a four-year victory drought, says the biggest adjustment is knowing when to play conservatively.
"(We) find ourselves playing away from a some of the pins; where before when it was more of a dartboard we played a bit more aggressive to 'em," Howell explained. "But the greens are so young so they're still quite firm. So there are a lot of hole locations out there that need to be getting a little bit of respect.
"The greens are rolling perfect. I don't think anybody putted on 'em for a while, so they're rolling good. You just have to be aware of the some of the corner flags and that the ball is going to bounce through the green a bit. And with the added length we're not quite hitting as many wedge into the holes as we were. So it takes a bit more patience out there, I think."
The steady Howell must be doing something right. He hit 11 of 14 fairways for the second straight day, as well as 12 of 18 greens in regulation. His 28 putts were three less than he used in the first round.
The lanky Georgian, who ranks 24th in the FedExCup, is looking to end a four-year victory drought. Howell came to West Virginia primed, though, with three top-five finishes in his last four starts.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Trevor Immelman doesn’t tee off until 12:30 p.m. ET but there’s already been a change at the top of the leaderboard.
Brendon de Jonge, who went to school at nearby Virginia Tech, has just birdied the fourth and fifth holes to move to 7 under. The big man from Zimbabwe made a a 10-footer at No. 4 and a 4-footer at the next to take sole possession of the lead.
The former Hokies standout started on the back nine and recovered from an early bogey with consecutive birdies at Nos. 16 and 17 to turn 1 under for the day. He finished third in last year’s Greenbrier Classic.
Meanwhile, Gary Woodland has moved into a tie with Immelman at 6 under. The big-hitting Woodland bogeyed No. 10, which was his first hole, but two-putted the par-5 17th for birdie and added another birdie at the first hole.
We’re well into the afternoon wave at The Old White TPC, and no one has been able to catch Trevor Immelman, who leads after a 6-under 64.
Brendon de Jonge has a chance to at 4 under through 12 holes, but he’s been stuck on that number for about an hour.
Meanwhile, Kenny Perry, Gary Woodland, Ryuji Imada and Kyle Stanley are all sitting another stroke back at 3 under.
Speaking of Woodland and Stanley, they, along with J.B. Holmes and Steven Bowditch, are among the four players in the field this week with the best driving distance average.
Coincidence that three of those four are near the top of the leaderboard? Probably not, especially since 200 yards was added to the course for this year’s tournament. And the only one of that group who didn’t play well Thursday was Holmes, who shot 76.
Trevor Immelman’s 6-under 64 was good for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that The Old White TPC has undergone some changes to play more difficult this year. Whether it stands up in the afternoon, we’re about to find out.
Gary Woodland and Brendon de Jonge are both already 4 under through seven and nine holes, respectively.
In Woodland we also may have the shot of the day with the rookie having holed out for eagle from 102 yards on the par-4 fourth. He also sandwiched a couple of birdies around that on Nos. 1 and 7.
DeJonge, on the other hand, has reached 4 under the old fashioned way -- with four birdies (Nos. 1, 3, 7 and 8). Only one of those birdies, however, has come from inside 10 feet.
By John Schwarb, PGATOUR.COM
Through eight holes Saturday, Chez Reavie was in no-man’s land at the John Deere Classic.
He was 1 over, walking off the eighth green after a three-putt. Steve Stricker, the two-time defending champion, was off to the races again at TPC Deere Run. Brendon de Jonge was on his way to a 63. Others were also finding plenty of birdies.
If he didn’t turn things around in the final 10 holes, his week would be ruined – a week that included a Friday 62.
Starting on the 13th hole, Reavie righted the ship, birdieing four of the last six to shoot a 3-under 68 that looked unlikely coming off the eighth green.
“You know, we fought hard today. Front side was tough,” Reavie said. “The front nine was long and started making a few putts in the back, so it was fun.
“I started feeling a little better about it, and I think I just ended up in better spots. I felt like I hit some shots on the front nine that didn't end up in the best spots, and you know, I shot 1‑over. That three‑putt on 8 was tough. I was in a divot there in the fairway and managed to keep it on the green and then to give away a shot, but I had a good two‑putt at 9 which gave me a little momentum and then got it going.”
Reavie’s only regret was not getting it going enough for a spot in the final group, which he coveted for the chance to play with Stricker.
“I was actually hoping to play with Steve. He’s a great guy and he’s a great player and he has great rhythm out there, and he’s just a nice guy. So I'm a little disappointed.”
But not too disappointed. He’s three shots behind Stricker, which might be doable come Sunday if Saturday’s late-round magic returns.
By John Schwarb, PGATOUR.COM
There are players who are successful at certain courses, and then there are players who own a place. Think of Tiger Woods at Bay Hill and Phil Mickelson at TPC Scottsdale, adopted or native sons who rewarded already-adoring fans with dominating efforts on multiple occasions.
Now think of Steve Stricker at TPC Deere Run.
Already a fan favorite with his Wisconsin background, Stricker has moved to another level thanks to his two consecutive wins at the John Deere Classic. A third could be in store tomorrow, should he hold on to the two-shot lead he’ll take into the final round after a Saturday 63, his finest round of the week.
Midwesterners love Stricker for his great play – arguably the loudest roars at TPC Deere Run have been his, such as when a 75-foot birdie putt on the first hole Saturday was said to have had players backing off their putts on other holes.
They also love his modest acknowledgment of it all.
“I don't feel like a rock star. It's not a distraction by any means, no,” he said. “You know, I get a lot of support here, a lot of well wishes. You know, I see a lot of familiar faces, a lot of people I've gotten a lot of tickets for people to come down this week.”
It’s his people, his course, and with one more strong round, his place in history. Only nine players have won the same PGA TOUR event three years running since World War II (Woods won four straight years at Bay Hill and Jack Nicklaus three straight years at Disney World, just to name two), an elite list that Stricker can crack Sunday evening.
At his place.
“You know, it's fun. It's fun to play. I feel pretty relaxed out there to tell you the truth, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow,” Stricker said. “It's going to be tough. You know, there's going to be guys that will come out of the blocks shooting probably lights out right away, and I'm going to have to continue to do what I've been doing the first three days.”
That’s true. Brendon de Jonge fired his own 63 to keep Stricker in sight and will get to look directly at him in the final group Sunday. In the second-to-last group will be Chez Reavie, a TOUR winner who showed a lot of poise in turning a mediocre round into a 3 under round in the closing holes Saturday, and a rookie in Kyle Stanley who has shot steady rounds of 65-67-65.
Should Stricker fend them off and anyone else who might drop an ultra-low round at a course that has seen a 59, he’ll have the three-peat. He’s just not thinking that way.
“Like I said, I haven't really given it much thought, but it would mean a lot. You know, like I told some other reporters, it's hard enough to win an event three times let alone three in a row,” Stricker said. “It'll be tough tomorrow, and you gotta fight through those nerves and everything, but it would mean a lot. It would be pretty special to be a part of that list.”
And pretty special to do it at TPC Deere Run.
By John Schwarb, PGATOUR.COM
Doesn’t seem fair, really. Brendon de Jonge has shot 66-66-63 through three rounds at the John Deere Classic – 18 under – and he’s not leading.
He’s trailing Steve Stricker by two shots going into the final round, as the two-time defending champion is turning in his usual effort at TPC Deere Run – 20 under, including his own Saturday 63. But the Zimbabwe native isn’t fazed.
He knows this is how the ball bounces at this event.
“I almost expect it around here,” de Jonge said. “Obviously (Stricker) knows how to play this golf course very, very well. He's very comfortable around it. But no, it's nice. I do have a chance tomorrow, which is great.”
De Jonge is seeking his first PGA TOUR win, and this year hasn’t been quite as fruitful as last year, when he finished third three times among seven top 10s. In 2011 he has just one top-10 so far, a T5 at the Transitions Championship in March, and came to the John Deere with three missed cuts in his last six starts and no finishes in the top 50.
But last year’s effort at TPC Deere Run, a seventh-place finish, gave de Jonge confidence.
“I realize that you gotta take advantage of a bunch of holes out there, and there's also a bunch of tough holes where you're happy to make a par and now you know hopefully how to play it the way it's supposed to be,” he said.
De Jonge will be in a unique spot Sunday, playing in the final group with Stricker, a virtual native son of the area who, oh yeah, has won the event the last two years. It’s not exactly a home game for a guy looking for his first win.
“I think a win regardless of who you beat would be wonderful. But yeah, definitely an awesome challenge,” de Jonge said.
“Regardless of who it is, you're going to have to play a good round of golf and you're going to have to make a bunch of birdies.”
In other words, keep doing what he’s been doing for three rounds. And hope that it’s somehow enough to take down the king of TPC Deere Run.