Scott Erdmann of Tigard, Ore., is one of golf’s quintessential “late bloomers.” He didn’t land a starting berth on his high school golf team that went on to state playoff success, and he was barely breaking 80 when he turned professional at age 20. It was all in his rear-view mirror Tuesday at Hershey Country Club, as Erdmann proved he has found his comfort zone while grabbing the lead in the 44th PGA Professional National Championship.
The 34-year-old assistant professional at Oswego Lake Country Club in Lake Oswego, Ore., birdied three of the four final holes on the East Course for a 2-under-par 69 and stood at 12-under-par 202 in the showcase event for PGA Professionals presented by Club Car and Mercedes-Benz.
Erdmann, whose biggest playing success to date was winning the 2009 Pacific Northwest PGA Assistant Championship, ran home a downhill 25-foot birdie putt at 18 to pull ahead of second-round leader Sean Dougherty of Overland Park, Kan., who also birdied the 18th, to set up an enticing final-round duel Wednesday in the $550,000 Championship.
“I prepared probably too hard and was really struggling to find a swing. I wasn’t super confident coming in,” said Erdmann. “As soon as I got out of the car and hit some balls on the range, for some reason everything’s been clicking. This is just way out of my element, with the TV cameras and all the people, it’s not something I’m used to. But when your swing feels good, it feels good, and I’m just riding it.”
Erdmann had a near-flawless final stretch at the East Course, making birdies at 15 and 16, then watching as his approach shot at the par-4 17th hole spun off the green and down a hill. He rallied from that to birdie 18 ahead of Dougherty.
Dougherty, who had set the 36-hole Championship scoring record Monday with a sizzling 64, came back to the field by grinding out a four-bogey, three-birdie 72, capped by his sinking a 30-foot birdie putt at 18.
“I didn't have too many chances today, while the first two days I hit it a lot better and had a bunch of chances at birdies,” said Dougherty, the PGA head professional at Milburn Country Club in Overland Park. “I was more nervous today then I was during the first two rounds. I guess that it to be expected.”
Dougherty, who needed only 52 putts and had one bogey the first two rounds, took 31 putts Tuesday.
“Scott played great. But if I can play well tomorrow I will give myself a chance to win this thing,” said Dougherty. “I have to stay in the moment.
Dougherty and Erdmann will be paired Wednesday with Faber Jamerson of Appomattox, Va., the 2006 runner-up in the PGA Assistant Championship, who finished strong at 69 for a 204 total, sharing third with Robert McClellan of Butler, Pa., who had the day’s low round of 66, and Stuart Smith of Reno, Nev., who came in with a 69.
“Last year was my first year playing (in the Championship) and I was a little naive,” said McClellan. “This year, I felt a lot more comfortable and set my goals higher.”
Smith, 43, the PGA director of golf at Somersett Country Club in Reno, Nev., was among a confident few on the challenging East greens.
“I’m really settled in on the greens and I feel like I’m reading them well. This course just fits me, even though the guys I’m playing with are hitting it in a different zip code,” said Smith. “I can get around this course, I can recover a little bit. So far, it’s suiting my game pretty nicely. The best putters are going to win. These greens are tough to read. It’s going to come down to putting, not just bombing it.”
David Hutsell of Baltimore, Md., who turned in a 67, and 2004 National Champion Bob Sowards of Dublin, Ohio, who had a 68, shared sixth at 206. Defending Champion Mike Small of Champaign, Ill., was another stroke back at 207 after a 69.
The low 20 scorers at the conclusion of Wednesday’s final round will earn a berth in the 93rd PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.
“I’ve played a lot of golf, been on the national stage before and just trying to keep it together,” said Jamerson. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow. It’s going to be a shootout. The golf course is playing well and there are a lot of birdies to be had.”
Scott Hebert of Traverse City, Mich., the 2008 National Champion, used a hole-in-one to stage a late rally to close at 4-under-par (210). Hebert scored his seventh career hole-in-one with a 3-iron on the 212-yard 16th hole and finished off a 1-under-par 70 by making an 18-inch birdie at 18.
“It was too late in the round, but I could not complain after being able to finish the round as I did,” said Hebert. “It was nothing but a 3-iron all the way for me. I hit it right on the screws. I told my caddie, Dave (Ellis), ‘What color (Club Car) do you want?” With his timely stroke, Hebert won a new Club Car Precedent golf cart.
The PGA Professional National Championship is supported by Titleist/FootJoy, Callaway Golf, Nike Golf, TaylorMade-adidas golf/Ashworth and the PGA Tour.