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Keith Dicciani
Keith Dicciani likes the way Twin Warriors sets up for him. (Photo: The PGA of America)

Scene and Heard: Notes and impressions from the third round

Ryan Benzel tells PGA.com's T.J. Auclair why he hopes his third National Championship experience will be a charm. Plus, Todd Lancaster is consistently good, Keith Dicciani is cool and collected, Eric Lippert goes very low, and more.

By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. -- Ryan Benzel is hopeful that his third crack at a PGA Professional National Championship is a charm.

In two previous appearances, Benzel tied for second at Sunriver in 2007 and tied for fourth in 2008 at Reynolds Plantation

Here in New Mexico, the 30-year-old PGA Head Professional at Mill Creek Country Club in Washington State, made the cut by one shot at 1 over, which meant he had plenty of work ahead of him as he teed it off in the first threesome off the 10th tee at Twin Warriors Golf Club on Tuesday morning.

Trailing by eight shots to start the third round, Benzel never counted himself out.

“Going off in the first group, I knew we’d have like nine holes of perfect conditions since nobody was on the greens beforehand,” he said. “Looking at the leaderboard last night, I was only three shots out of the top 10. So I knew if I could play a good round, I didn’t expect the other scores to go much deeper. A handful of guys under par is what I was expecting. I figured that if I could get myself into red numbers, that would be good.”

Turns out it was great. Benzel fired a 4-under 67 in a round that included five birdies and just one bogey to soar up the leaderboard and into the mix at 3 under for the tournament and five shots off the lead.

“I told a few people yesterday that I thought 68 or 67 would be good for today,” Benzel admitted. “It turned out to be a 67 and I’m happy with it.”

Benzel half-joked that he was wondering what was taking the scorers so long to put his name up on the leaderboards throughout the course, figuring that his 67 might send a message to the rest of the field.

“Hopefully it makes them nervous a little bit going, ‘Oh man, people are catching me,’” he said. “But like Tim Thelen, I know if my name gets posted on the board at 3 under, he’s 3 under right now, that’ll fire him up because he and I are good friends. But it’s still nice to just throw it up there and have them say, ‘Hey, look at this.’ So I’d like to see my name up there, but tomorrow is more important I think.”

There is nothing Benzel would like more in the final round than to get off to the start he had at Reynolds Plantation in 2008, where he birdied five of his first six holes.

“I know that I can do that,” he said. “I’ll probably be nervous just like everybody else, but it’s out there I think, especially if the winds down. It’s not real volatile today. But the weather could get worse I’m sure. We could show up tomorrow, it could be blowing 20 mph and it’s a totally different story. Then you’re just making pars, because that’s a great score. We’ll see what the weather brings, really.”

As has been the case over the last several years, the cream is rising to the top as the National Championship rolls on with the likes of Thelen, Mike Small, Steve Schneiter and Benzel all in contention.  

“Thankfully I’m included in that. I’m happy to be in that group,” Benzel said. “Those guys are all past champions, so at some point, I’d like to have ‘past champion’ behind my name.  I’ll do what I can do and see what happens.”

CONSISTENTLY GOOD: In just his second start at the PGA Professional National Championship, Todd Lancaster will have a chance to win on Wednesday.

Lancaster, a 33-year-old PGA Assistant Professional from Westwood Country Club in Rocky River, Ohio, has been brilliant all week. With a 3-under 68 on Tuesday -- his second 68 in as many days -- Lancaster will begin Wednesday’s final round trailing by just two shots at 6 under.

“It got windy at the end,” he said. “We had good conditions the whole way until maybe the last five holes. We just had to take advantage of it when the wind was down. I think Keith [Dicciani] and I got going pretty early. It really helps playing someone who is also playing good; you kind of keep rolling with that. I just tried to get it going and then the last couple of holes tried to just hang in there.”

Lancaster played the front nine in 2 under, making his second birdie of the day at No. 9 on a 25-foot putt. Bookend bogeys on the back side along with birdies on Nos. 11, 13 and 16 put Lancaster in a great position with 18 holes to go.

“I’m just going to try to enjoy it,” Lancaster said. “That’s all you can do. Keep hitting shots, keep hitting your target, stay in your game, hope things go well tomorrow and have a lot of fun.”

MR. COOL: Keith Dicciani missed the cut in his first National Championship start last year at Reynolds Plantation.

This time around not only did he easily make the cut, but he’s got a great chance to win.

With a 4-under 67 on Tuesday, the 37-year-old PGA Assistant Professional from Metropolis Country Club in White Plains, N.Y., and Muttontown Golf and Country Club in East Norwich, N.Y., got to 6 under for the tournament and pulled within two shots of  the lead.

If he’s nervous, Dicciani sure isn’t showing it.

“The course sets up decent for me. I like it,” Dicciani said. “The lines off the tees are pretty good and you can hit 2-irons out there. You don’t have to hit driver on every hole, so that’s an advantage. I’m just going to try to keep doing what I’ve been doing and I’m looking forward to it.”

The wind got brutal toward the end of Dicciani’s round on Tuesday, evidenced by his lone bogey of the day on No. 17. But, he figures if it stays that way on Wednesday, there shouldn’t be a whole lot of low scores.

“If it stays windy there won’t be any low scores, so you just need to try and hold steady and stay in there,” he said.

BEST OF THE WEEK: Eric Lippert, the 34-year-old PGA Assistant Professional out of Del Monte Golf Course in Monterey, Calif., recorded the best score of the week at Twin Warriors on Tuesday with a timely 6-under 65 to get to 4 under for the tournament.

That tied Lippert for low score of the week honors with Grant Sturgeon (more on him later), who fired the same number at Santa Ana on Monday. Coincidentally, both players made the cut at 2-over 144.

Lippert, whose hobbies include “cooking BBQ, eating BBQ and talking about BBQ,” smoked it at Twin Warriors because he said he was able to put some swing thoughts from Pebble Beach PGA Professional Laird Small into motion.

“I got some help before I left to come here from Laird Small on a couple of swing tips,” Lippert said. “We’ve been trying to implement them and it seemed to have paid off pretty well today. I felt like I was playing pretty good in the practice rounds, but I couldn’t just let it go in the first two rounds.

“Today I finally let it go. It was a breath of fresh air to make the cut -- last year I missed by one shot, so to make it right on the number means I still have a chance,” he added. “It was a good day.”

Before Lippert became a PGA Professional, he spent time playing on the Canadian Tour. In fact, that’s the last time he can remember turning in a score as low as Tuesday’s 65.

“This has got to be my best competitive round to date since probably 10 years ago when I was on the Canadian Tour. I think I had a 65 there once, but obviously this one probably means a little more to me,” he said. “It’s fantastic. I spent a long time waiting. I quit playing about three years ago, so I came back, got back into it, got my membership and I’ve been working on my game.”

DON’T TAKE HIM FOR ‘GRANT’-ED: Yeah, so about Sturgeon. … On Monday he dazzled with a 6-under 65 at Santa Ana in a round that was complete with a hole-in-one and a birdie on the final hole for a back-nine 30 to make the cut on the number.

The 65 was an amazing 14 shots better than his opening round at Twin Warriors on Sunday, where the PGA Assistant Professional from Oakmont Country Club shot an 8-over 79.

Has he ever experienced a turnaround quite like that?

“I don’t know about shooting a score as high as a 79 and then a score as low as 65, but I’m known for not starting quick sometimes and finishing strong with three or four birdies down the stretch and I’ve always done that,” he said. “I did it in college golf a ton. So I just tried to forget about that first day and keep rolling.”

So, returning to Twin Warriors for the third round was going to be trouble, right?

Not so much. Sturgeon kept the momentum going and shot a 4-under 67 to move to 2 under for the tournament.

“The last 36 holes have been awesome,” he said. “I hit the golf ball really, really good both days and the big thing is that I’ve started to make some putts. When I make some putts I usually play well. My caddie and I just had a lot better feel for the greens today as far as the speed goes and picking out lines. The big difference was just making some putts and trying to forget the first round.”

Sturgeon said his struggles on the first day could be attributed to that green speed. Coming from western Pennsylvania, Sturgeon said the greens are lightning quick wherever he plays. But, that wasn’t the case at Twin Warriors on Sunday. Monday’s round at Santa Ana brought slicker greens and then when Sturgeon returned to Twin Warriors for the third round, he said the seemed to be rolling a lot quicker than in the first round.

“I like the pace of them a lot more now then when I started on Sunday,” he said.

STILL IN IT: Of the top 14 players on the leaderboard heading into the final round, 41-year-old Kevin Roman was the only one who failed to break par. Even so, don’t count him out in the final round.

Roman, the PGA Assistant Professional at Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta, Ga., certainly struggled with a 1-over 72 on Tuesday, but based on the draw, it’s impressive that he finds himself just five shots off the lead at 3 under.

Roman was one of those who went out early on Sunday and had to deal with the brunt of the wind and the rain. He had a 72 in the first round, followed by a 5-under 66 on Monday to get into the equation.

“The way this course plays is very dependent on the wind,” Roman said. “I feel like I had the bad end of the draw because I had all that wind in the first round to deal with. So to be in contention playing in this weather, I’m pretty happy. I’ve been hitting it really well. I think today was just one of those things where you just kind of get out of rhythm and it’s hard to fight out here because it’s a tough course.”

While disappointed with his game in the third round, Roman at least took solace in the final tally.

“Honestly, I played so well the first two days I really didn’t miss many shots,” he said. “I missed five greens in two days. Today, I just didn’t play very well. I hung in there and just kept grinding it out. I made a couple of really bad swings, but all in all, I really can’t complain with the score for as bad as I played.”
 

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