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."