Wheatcroft increases his lead to eight at Prince George’s County Open

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It’s his to lose. Only a catastrophe by the leader or a miracle from a distant challenger will keep Steve Wheatcroft out of the winner’s circle at the Nationwide Tour’s Melwood Prince George’s County Open on Sunday.

Wheatcroft fired a 6-under-par 65 Saturday and extended his lead to a record-setting eight strokes after 54 holes at the University of Maryland Golf Course. The 33-year old Indiana University grad is a whopping 22 under par, and is eight shots in front of Nicholas Thompson (64) with only 18 holes to go.

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2011 MELWOOD PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY OPEN

The University of Maryland Golf Course was once the home base of Fred Funk, who served as the Terrapins' golf coach for several years.

England’s Greg Owen (68) is alone in third, 10 shots behind.

Erik Compton (66), J.J. Killeen (66) and Jon Mills (68) share fourth place at 11 under par.

The end is in sight for Wheatcroft, who has never won on the either the Nationwide Tour or the PGA Tour, and prior to Friday had never held the lead after any single round in 128 combined starts.

“Today’s the day I was nervous about,” said Wheatcroft, who fired a 10-under 60 in Friday’s second round and began the day with a seven-stroke bulge, the largest 36-hole lead in Nationwide Tour history. “A seven-shot lead is one thing with nine holes to go but when you have 36 holes to go on a tough golf course that has a lot of rough and trouble, seven shots can go quickly.”

Wheatcroft never let anybody get close. Birdies at Nos. 1, 4, 7, 8 and 9 pushed him to 20 under par and kept the field at a distance.

“Once I get through 2 and 5, those are the holes that have been giving me fits all week, once we get through those it’s green light, it’s time to run,” he said. “I feel like every hole is a birdie hole after that.”

Wheatcroft gave himself plenty of chances before closing with birdies at Nos. 16 and 18 to up the lead to eight, which also goes into the books as the largest 54-hole lead in Tour history.

“I tried to not do one thing different today than what I’ve been doing,” said Wheatcroft. “One shot, eight shots or 20 shots, let’s go play golf. This is the way I play. I’m fairly aggressive to begin with. I won’t do anything stupid -- I won’t chase pins with crazy shots but if I feel good on a shot we’re going right at it.”

His ready, aim, fire approach has been nearly perfect, along with his putting, which continues to be his strength. Wheatcroft has only 71 putts in 54 holes to lead the field.

“I’m still hitting some loose shots here and there with the irons but the putter has been great,” he said. “It’s definitely one of the best weeks I’ve ever played and it’s one of the putting best weeks. I like these weeks where I’m seeing the lines and I’m hitting my lines beautifully.”

Thompson will get the up close look in Sunday finale but knows it’s going to be tough to catch the man they call “Wheatie.”

“It’s a tough one to swallow but what can I do now? I can’t shoot any lower, I just finished,” Thompson joked with reporters after turning in a scorecard that had nine birdies. “I birdied half the course so I can’t complain too much. Anything below a 66 and you should move up, which I did but I didn’t gain much on the leader.”

Gary Christian fired a career-low, 9-under 62 to move to 10-under 203. Christian needed birdies on two of his final three holes Friday just to make the 36-hole cut on the number. His 20-footer on the last hole gave him new life on the weekend. His 62 bettered a pair of 63s, one of which came during the third round of the 2009 Northeast Pennsylvania Classic, his only Tour win.

“It felt like a free round of golf today because I didn’t think I was going to make the cut,” said Christian. “It was just easy, everything flowed. You pick out a spot and work out a shot to hit it there and it would go there.”

Christian hit 12 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in moving up from a tie for 52nd at the start of the day to a tie for seventh at the end.

Third-Round Notes:

--Erik Compton birdied the short par-4 eighth after making eagle there each of the first two days. Compton is 5 under on that hole thus far this week, and 6 under on the rest of the golf course. He shot a 66 Saturday and stands tied for fourth heading to Sunday.

--Steve Wheatcroft’s total of 191 is one stroke off the Nationwide Tour record for the lowest opening-54 hole score. The record is 190 (65-61-64) set by David Branshaw at the par-71 Devil’s Claw at Whirlwind GC in Chandler, Ariz., during the Gila River Golf Classic. The other 191 came from Scott Piercy at the 2008 Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open.

--Steve Wheatcroft’s eight-stroke lead is the largest 54-hole lead in Nationwide Tour history. He has made 25 birdies through 54 holes and is in position to challenge the tour record for most birdies made in a single tournament, which is 31 by Craig Lile at the 2003 Cox Classic.