PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Aron Price fittingly ended Friday’s round the way it began – with a birdie. As a result, he enters the weekend at 6-under, close to the top of the leaderboard, and ready to make a serious run at a return to the PGA TOUR.
The Australian-turned Jacksonville Beach, Fla. resident entered the week tied for 79th in the Finals standings, and needs to continue to go low to have a chance.
Price was dialed in almost all day, despite sporadic wind and rain, carding six birdies (four inside eight feet).
“I holed a nice putt from about 14 feet on the first hole which is always nice for the confidence,” said Price. “From there the greens were nearly perfect on the front nine. I hit a lot of putts where I wanted it.”
Price’s round was nearly immaculate except for a poor drive on No. 8 that led to his lone bogey. “I got the confidence back with a birdie on the next hole and it was all good.”
By the time he approached the 16th tee, the winds had changed. “We were lucky when it picked up, because we were straight downwind for those last three holes.”
Price’s approach into No. 18 from a right angle was perhaps his most impressive birdie as he hit a 9-iron from 161 yards to inside four feet and the ball didn’t move.
PUTTING KEY: Lee Williams entered the Web.com Tour Championship at No. 68 in the Finals standings. He missed out on the FedExCup Playoffs in his first full year on the PGA TOUR by finishing No. 196.
The 32-year-old native of Alexander City, Ala., whose best PGA TOUR finish in 2013 was a tie for 33rd at the John Deere Classic, posted seven birdies to go along with two bogeys and one double to send him into the weekend at 4-under with a realistic chance at making a run at the leaders.
But, Williams stressed it’s definitely the putting that separates the PGA TOUR players from the Web.com Tour players, in his opinion.
“For my game, I have to be in the fairway and I have to be a very good putter inside 15 feet,” he said. "You definitely want to have your putter working out here. This course is one of the toughest and I’d say in the top two. You have to put it in the fairway to have a chance to get it close.”
EYE ON THE PLAYERS: Ryo Ishikawa wasn’t bothered by the rain at all on Friday, shooting a 68 to send him into the weekend 3-under as he looks to solidify a return to the PGA TOUR in 2013.
“Yes, I love these conditions,” said the 22-year-old Ishikawa. “In Japan, it’s always rainy conditions. That’s good for a Japanese player. In the U.S,. it’s bigger and sometimes we can’t play any more when the thunderstorms are coming. Today, we kept playing. I’m pretty used to it”
Ishikawa can’t help but hope to be eligible to play THE PLAYERS soon. “This is first time at TPC Sawgrass and this side (Dye’s Valley) is tough enough. Next year might be tough for me to play THE PLAYERS, but one day, hopefully, I’m looking forward to it (playing the Stadium Course).”
BIRDIES, EAGLES, CHIKIN: David Mathis, who won the inaugural Web.com Tour event at Dye’s Valley in 2010, has one of his favorite slogans proudly posted on his bag: “BIRDIES, EAGLES, CHIKIN.”
Sponsored by Chick-fil-A, Mathis first saw the slogan used by the restaurant chain at an LPGA women’s event. Mathis liked it and discussed it with his local Chick-fil-A representative and wanted it to go wherever his bag went.
“Too bad this year, it’s been more chicken for me than eagles and birdies,” said Mathis.
When he won at Dye’s Valley, Mathis shot a tournament record 63 on Friday.
“I played well enough to do the same thing today and I let one slip on the back nine.” said Mathis. He settled for a 67 and had five birdies and two bogeys – one of which came on his final hole (No. 9) when he found the bunker on an approach into the wind.
Mathis figures he needs to finish top 8 to return to the PGA TOUR. “I’m thankful that I had a good round today, but I don’t have much choice. I have to play well this weekend.”
Entering the weekend of the Web.com Tour Championship among the leaders at 5-under is a good indication.
BACK ON TRACK: Jhonattan Vegas is pleased with the progress he has made following shoulder surgery, which sidelined him for more than six months during the 2013 season.
“I am feeling like I have control of my game right now and it’s great.,” said Vegas, “and I’m very happy with where I am right now.”
The 29-year-old Venezuelan, winner of the 2011 Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation, finished in a tie for seventh place at THE PLAYERS in 2012. What he saw then and what he saw Friday were very different golf courses with today’s softer conditions.
“On this one, you can’t afford to hit the ball close to the pin,” Vegas said. “Sometimes you get a firm course and you have to learn to hit the ball six yards short of the pin. It’s something you have to adjust and we deal with this every single week.”
At the halfway point at Dye’s Valley, Vegas likes his chances. “If I keep doing what I’m doing, we’re going to have fun this weekend.”
JUST SHORT: Camilo Benedetti caught a glimpse of a leaderboard as he played the 15th green, discovering he needed a birdie to keep alive his hopes of a PGA TOUR promotion.
He got it, too – converting a 12-foot putt at the par-5 16th to move above the cut line with two holes to play. And then he slipped back again.
Benedetti’s drive at the 499-yard 17th flared off to the right, his approach from the rough missed the green and he fell back below the line with a bogey. Then the Colombian pro misread his 18-foot birdie try at No. 18, watching it break sharply and leaving him another winter of lament.
“I played as hard as I could,” Benedetti said. “I had pressure all along the back nine – I felt like my body had so much adrenaline going on. But I was able to stay there and do the best I could. Unfortunately it’s going to be one short.”
It marks the second consecutive year that Benedetti’s final bid for a PGA TOUR card ended in heartbreak. Squarely on the No. 25 bubble entering last year’s Web.com Tour Championship, he couldn’t recover from a slow start despite weekend rounds of 66-67.
After an agonizing hour of watching the final groups play through, Benedetti saw his name unable to climb above 26th in the projections.
“We all know it’s hard,” Benedetti said Friday. “I just wish things went a little more my way.”
Most costly were a pair of 6-foot birdie misses on the front nine, which would have created some momentum before a tough stretch from Nos. 6-11. “They were all dead into the wind,” he said, “and it was tough to play those holes.”
He bogeyed Nos. 8 and 10, negating his birdies early in the round. Five pars followed before his finishing anguish. “It’s been a roller coaster over the last year,” he said.
TIMELY 64: Troy Merritt picked a great time to produce his best round of the year.
Starting the day three shots off the projected cut line, the Idaho pro rebounded with a 6-under 64 that not only got him to the weekend, but likely punched his ticket back to the PGA TOUR.
Merritt rose 85 spots to a tie for 15th. With eight of the 10 men behind him on the Web.com Tour Finals money list missing the cut, it would take a miserable weekend for him to not claim one of the 25 PGA TOUR cards to be handed out Sunday.
“Making the cut was the biggest thing on my mind today,” said Merritt, who played the PGA TOUR in 2010 and ’11 before losing his status. “I thought about it a lot last night and again this morning. I couldn’t wait to get out here, and it paid off.”
The accomplishment comes after Merritt barely scraped into the Finals lineup at No. 74 on the regular-season money list. The top 75 earned passage to the four-event Finals, where Merritt opened with top-20 finishes in both Fort Wayne and Charlotte.
The outlook wasn’t so encouraging when Merritt opened with a 73 at Dye’s Valley, but a little work on his driving produced a big payoff.
“For the first time all year, I went to the driving range after [Thursday’s] round,” he said. “I hit driver for about 10 minutes, and found my alignment was a little open and my tempo was a little quick. When I do that, the ball kind of goes both directions.”
Some additional work before Friday’s round tightened up his swing, and he seemed unfazed by the gusty winds that kicked up during the afternoon.
“I’ve had some good rounds this year – 8 under, 7 under in a little bit better conditions,” he said. “But I would say this is probably one of my top two or three rounds of the year.
“And if you factor in the pressure of it – having to make the cut and make a check to get my TOUR card, this is probably my best.”