It wasn’t even close. Steve Wheatcroft eagled the final hole Sunday to polish off his first career win in record-setting fashion at the Melwood Prince George’s County Open. The 33-year old Indiana University grad shot a final round 7-under 64 and lapped the field by a Nationwide Tour record 12 strokes.
Wheatcroft finished at 29 under par and splattered his name all over the record book while picking up a first-place check for $108,000, which moved him from No. 32 to No. 2 on the season money list.
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“I’m absolutely over-the-top ecstatic. I’ve been out here for five years and never won,” he said. “I wanted to make that next step and I wanted to do it in a big way.”
It wasn’t big, it was huge. The list of his accomplishments would take several pages but perhaps the most impressive was his score of 255, the lowest 72-hole total in the 22-year history of the Nationwide Tour. The old mark of 258 was set by Chris Smith at the 1997 Omaha Classic and later matched by Daniel Chopra at the 2004 Henrico County Open.
His margin of victory is also the largest in tour history, topping Smith’s 11-stroke win 14 years ago and Marc Leishmann’s 11-shot margin at the 2008 WNB Golf Classic.
“I had the pedal to the floor all day,” said Wheatcroft. “I didn’t’ want anybody thinking they had a chance today.”
Nobody had much of a chance the last three days.
The Pennsylvania native moved to the front with his 10-under 61 in the second round and never turned around to see who was following. He set tour records for the largest 36-hole lead (seven) and the largest 54-hole lead (eight) before slamming the door in Sunday’s finale.
“Friday was one of those crazy days and I just tried not to look back,” he said.
Ryan Armour posted a 9-under 62 to finish at 17 under par and grab a share of second place with Jon Mills (65). Nicholas Thompson (69) ended the week at 16 under to take solo fourth. Thompson had the best seat in the house Sunday, playing alongside Wheatcroft.
“He played phenomenal,” said Thompson. “There was no catching him.”
Wheatcroft eased into the day but left little doubt that he was headed to his first win when he rolled in birdies at Nos. 4, 6 and 8.
“Everybody behind me had nothing to lose and I knew they were going to be firing at pins. They were going to go as low as they can,” he said of his challengers. “The goal was to try and birdie as many as I could and get as far ahead as I could.”
Wheatcroft’s bandwagon started slowly but began to build as the record-setting day wore on.
“Making a birdie I look up and see ‘Terrible Towels’ waving,” said the Pittsburgh-area native. “I hear everyone cheering and hear voices I recognize. My family was here, my girlfriend was here, my friends were here. We probably had 25-30 with us and we picked up a few more (fans) as we went along.”
His lead was in double digits at the turn and the only questions left to be answered would be about the final numbers.
“The first time I felt really safe was on 14 green. I probably had 18 feet left for par,” he said. “That was a huge boost for me. Fourteen and 15 are nasty holes if you don’t get it in play and things can change. You give one or two back and it shrinks and all of a sudden everyone’s thinking they have a shot.”
They were wrong. Wheatcroft kept the pressure and closed with a 5-foot birdie at No. 15, two-putted for birdie from 40 feet at No. 16 and then finished with a flourish.
“I wanted to go out with a bang,” he said. “I’m kind of a TV ham and the 18th green on Sunday is about as good as you’re going to get.”
Wheatcroft rolled in the eagle from 20 feet to finish off the week but the celebration will have to wait. He will join fellow pros and amateurs on Monday as they try to qualify for the U.S. Open, which will be played about 30 minutes away at Congressional Country Club.
“I’ll delay it one more day,” he said. “The U.S. Open is my biggest tournament. It’s my dream tournament. I’m pretty sure Monday night will be a big one.”
The celebration, like everything else, will pale in comparison to all that he accomplished over the past four days.
Armour made a huge move with a 9-under 62 that vaulted him to 17 under for the week and a tie for second. Armour was even par through his first six holes before chipping in for eagle at the par-5 seventh.
“It three-hopped into the hole and it just ignited stuff,” said Armour, who felt the momentum change. “All sports are a game of momentum. People say you try to keep an even keel on the golf course but you can feel the ebb and flows of everything going on. I hit it solid on the back and gave myself every opportunity to make birdies on every hole out there.”
This was Armour’s best finish since he tied for second at the 2005 Jacob’s Creek Open Championship in Australia.
--Erik Compton all but owned the par-4 eighth hole this week. Compton played the 346-yard, dogleg left at 6 under par for four days. He eagled the hole each of the first two days and then birdied it twice on the weekend.
--Matt Davidson continued his solid season with his fourth top-10 finish. Davidson has made the cut in five of seven starts and has finished in the top-25 in each of those five events. The Furman University fired a 5-under 66 and tied for ninth. In his last five starts he has tied for ninth, tied for 10th, tied for 15th, missed a cut and tied for ninth. He moved from No. 19 to No. 9 on the money list.
Steve Wheatcroft put his name in several places in the Nationwide Tour record book this week:
--He became the 19th player to shoot 60 or better in a single round; tied the fourth-lowest opening 36-hole score with his 126 total (66-60)
--tied the seventh-lowest 36-hole score (consecutive rounds) history with his 126 total, in rounds 1-2
--tied the third-lowest mark for fewest putts in a single round with 19 during the second round
--his seven-stroke lead was the largest 36-hole lead
--his eight-stroke lead was the largest 54-hole lead
--his 191 total matched the second-lowest opening-54 score
--his 125 total in rounds 2 and 3 (60-65) tied the second-lowest 36-hole total for consecutive rounds
--his 96 total putts was one shy of the all-time best of 95 set by Grant Waite at the 2003 Miccosukee Championship
--his winning score of 255 broke the record by three strokes for the lowest 72-hole total
--his 12-stroke win also set a new mark for the largest margin of victory
--his 31 birdies tied the record for most birdies in a single tournament; his finishing score of 29 under par is the second-best in tour history.