PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Four months ago, the last time Casey Wittenberg came to TPC Sawgrass, he found himself playing with Tiger Woods on Sunday in the next-to-last group with a chance to win The PLAYERS.
Wittenberg finished tied for eighth at THE PLAYERS and the thought never entered his mind that by season’s end, he’d be back at TPC Sawgrass fighting for his PGA TOUR livelihood in the Web.com Tour Championship.
On Thursday, he saw a very different golf course at TPC Sawgrass just a stone’s throw from the one he played in May.
“The greens are soft and relatively slow in comparison to what I’m used to out here,” said the 28-year-old Wittenberg, who finished 10th at the 2012 U.S. Open. “I played really well on the other one (Stadium) when it was really firm. Hopefully, it will start drying up. With the turf being so soft, even though we were able to play lift, clean and place today, the ball is hard to control.”
Despite conditions not being to his liking, Wittenberg shot a steady 2-under (68) Thursday morning on Dye’s Valley – needing likely a top 10 finish to keep his card for the coming year.
Wittenberg has missed the cut in two of his previous three trips to Dye’s Valley on the Web.com Tour, but is hopeful the sun is going to shine on the course and his game.
“I would like to see it firm up a little bit because it puts a little bit more of a premium on ball control and being able to hit different shots into the greens,” he said. “But we may not get it, so I’m just going to have to take what it gives me and try to play as well as I can. It’s not the first time I’ve ever been in this situation or at q-school.”
Wittenberg is one of 10 players who returned to TPC Sawgrass for the second time this year. Ricky Barnes, Chad Campbell, Bud Cauley, Colt Knost, David Mathis, Troy Matteson, Sean O'Hair, Greg Owen, Dicky Pride and Casey Wittenberg were all in the field for THE PLAYERS, and are now at the Web.com Tour Championship fighting to keep their PGA TOUR cards.
GOYDOS RETURNS: Paul Goydos, who missed most of the 2012 and 2013 PGA TOUR season due to bone spurs in his left wrist requiring two surgeries, shot 2-over 72 on Dye’s Valley Thursday in his first tournament back since June.
Goydos, who had not planned on returning to the PGA TOUR until October at the Frys.com Open, felt his wrist was ready for the test at TPC Sawgrass.
“I’m as healthy as I’m going to be probably,” said Goydos, who turns 50 next summer and is eligible to play in 19 PGA TOUR events in the coming season because of his major medical exemption. “In the last three weeks, I didn’t even have to take Advil. I came here to see how it would handle the heat. I played 18 holes on Monday, hit balls for two hours, hit balls for two to three hours on Tuesday, played 18 holes Wednesday and hit balls for another hour and one-half, then played today. The wrist feels better than it did Monday.”
His only two events played in 2013 prior to today's start came in June at the FedEx St. Jude Classic and Travelers Championship.
Goydos, who lost in a playoff to Sergio Garcia in the 2008 PLAYERS at TPC Sawgrass and finished third in 2011, is realistic about his comeback.
“I need repititions right now. That’s one of the reasons I’m here,” said Goydos, a two-time PGA TOUR winner. “I’m not unhappy with how it went today and I’m not saying my game is there. But I’m trying to win the golf tournament. The day that somebody shows up and says that he’s not trying to win, I want to play that guy every week.”
HADLEY, WIFE EXPECTING FIRST CHILD: The good news for Chesson Hadley: His PGA TOUR card is assured, and he can make plans for his debut in a couple of weeks.
The even better news: Hadley also is about a month away from becoming a father for the first time.
Now if he and wife Amanda can manage to keep the two from conflicting.
“We’re shooting for four weeks,” Hadley said after Thursday’s 5-under 65 left him two shots off the first-round lead.
Amanda’s due date is Nov. 2, though Hadley said her progress has been measuring ahead of pace. The ideal situation, he said, would be to play the Frys.com Open in California and the following week in Las Vegas – then have the baby while the TOUR takes a two-week swing through Asia.
“Hopefully we can induce,” he said. “We’ll come back from Vegas, the baby comes and hopefully we’ll have another week to get used to baby-ness. It’s just going to be crazy, I’m sure.”
And that’s if everything goes to plan. Ask Hunter Mahan about that.
Mahan, you’ll recall, thought he’d be able to play the RBC Canadian Open with three weeks left before wife Kandi’s due date. Instead, she went into labor on the weekend and he relinquished the 36-hole lead to rush home.
“I know scheduling babies doesn’t always turn out,” Hadley said. “Whenever it comes, it comes.”
The Hadleys, who have known each other since fifth grade in Raleigh, N.C., have chosen not to know whether they’re having a boy or girl. They have a girl’s name picked out, but haven’t settled yet on a boy’s option.
Hadley, though, did have a name at the ready for the SUV just purchased last week. The 2010 Chevy Tahoe has been christened “Sweet Sue.”
“All ships and cars are female,” he quipped. “I wanted a big car so if (Amanda) were to get in an accident, she would win. You don’t want to lose in car accidents.”
HOME GAME: Jeff Klauk opened the Web.com Tour Championship Thursday by shooting even par on the “other course” he played as a child.
“This is where they played when he couldn’t get on the Stadium Course,” joked wife, Shanna Klauk.
Never did Klauk think in his wildest imagination that his PGA TOUR card could be decided on Dye’s Valley. Klauk entered this week at No. 71 in the Finals standings, needing a very strong finish inside the top 10 to regain his card.
“It’s a great track and I love playing it,” said Klauk. “I’m feeling great and love than I get to play at home.”
Finally healthy after missing nearly a year following an epilepsy diagnosis and back problems, Klauk has been able to play a full season. “I’m putting it all back together. I feel like I have enough rounds in me now, but it’s a journey. “
WILD ROUND: Scott Gardiner’s up-and-down opening round Thursday (3-under 67) featured five birdies, an eagle and four bogeys.
Playing Dye’s Valley for the fourth straight year, Gardiner has a simple philosophy: “Hit it in the fairway, make a birdie! Hit it in the rough, make a bogey.”
On No. 18, after splitting the fairway with his drive, Gardiner took out his 8-iron from 170 yards and hit it in the hole for an eagle-3.
“I felt I hit it pretty good, but there was no reaction,” joked Gardiner. “That was good to do that and my wife likes eagles. So, I know it’s going to be a good day when I make one.”
Gardiner, No. 11 in the Finals standings, cannot afford to slip this week. He’s made the cut in each of his previous three trips to Dye’s Valley, including a 7th place finish in 2011.
“It’s a course I love and everybody looks forward to coming to play,” said Gardiner. “It’s pretty strategic and you have to hit good shots.”
DURANT CHASING TITLE: Four-time PGA TOUR winner Joe Durant would love to lock up his PGA TOUR card this week, but also wants to stand in the winner's circle again.
The Pensacola, Fla., resident rose high on the leaderboard late Thursday afternoon with a 4-under 66 to put him just a couple of shots back of the clubhouse leader.
"I'm here to try to win a golf tournament," said Durant. "That takes care of a lot of things. If you set your sights high enough, that's where you tend to hang around."
When Durant showed up at Dye's Valley on Wednesday, it was only the second time he's ever seen the golf course -- having played it years ago in an FCA junior summer camp.
"I just tried to hit fairway and greens," Durant noted. "It's a challenging course though -- even soft. The rough is not very forgiving if you put it in there. A lot of times, you're just trying to chop it back out. I have to play the way I played today."