Seven players within 4 shots of the lead at the Houston Open have never won on the PGA Tour. Twelve of them still aren’t in the Masters Tournament. 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 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. Twenty players are separated by 4 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.”
Steve 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 1 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 2 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 5 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, 9 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 4 shots of the lead who have never won on the PGA Tour.
Germany’s Marcel Siem shot a 3-under 69 to extend his lead to 4 shots after the third round of the European Tour’s Hassan II Trophy in Agadir, Morocco. The French Open champion had a 15-under 201 total at Golf du Palais Royal. He needs a victory today to have a chance to get into the top 50 in the world and earn a spot in the Masters. Finland’s Mikko Ilonen, England’s David Horsey and Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal were tied for second.