Steve Wheatcoft nearly rewrote the Nationwide Tour record book in Friday’s second round of the Melwood Prince George’s County Open but settled, instead, for the round of his life. Wheatcroft, 33, blistered the University of Maryland Golf Course with an 11-under-par 60 and distanced himself from the field at the halfway mark.
The Indiana University graduate stands at 16-under 126 despite missing a 22-foot eagle putt on the final hole that would have given him one of golf’s greatest rarities, a round of 59.
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“Get it there, just get it there. Don’t leave it short,” he said of his attempt to join an elite group of sub-60 players in tour history. “You don’t get a shot at 59 very often. It’s the magic number.”
Three players have recorded 59s since the tour’s inception in 1990. Jason Gore was the last to do it at the 2005 Cox Classic in Omaha.
Wheatcroft’s career-best effort also put him seven strokes in front of his nearest competitor, Greg Owen, who has posted respectable scores of 65-68 but might need binoculars to see the leader this weekend. The margin is the largest 36-hole lead in the tour’s 22-year history.
Canadian Jon Mills (67) is 8 under and in third place, eight shots behind. Camilo Benedetti (65), Nicholas Thompson (69), Michael Thompson (70) and 2007 champion Paul Claxton (68) share fourth place, nine strokes back.
“It was a lot of fun. I was watching the scoreboard,” said Wheatcroft. “I knew I was playing well. I didn’t get as much out of my round yesterday as I wanted so I just came out today and tried to birdie every hole.”
Wheatcroft got up-and-down for par on his opening two holes before turning his scorecard into a sea of red. He reeled off four consecutive birdies starting at No. 3, lipped out a birdie at No. 7 and added his fifth of the day at No. 8.
“I’ve been hitting my irons pretty well for the last couple of months but not scoring very well,” he said. “The putter has been ice cold and if I missed a green I wouldn’t get it up and down and kill momentum, things like that.”
The putter was working perfectly on a relatively cool Friday morning. He totaled only 19 putts on the day, one shy of the tour’s all-time low for a single round.
“You get out before the wind,” said Wheatcroft, who was in the first group off the first tee. “We had nine holes of fresh greens, that’s always nice. The greens on the back were just as pure.”
Wheatcroft heated things up with a 25-foot birdie at No. 10 and then added a 35-footer at No. 14 which would have gone at least four feet by if it handed slammed into the back of the cup.
“I made the long putt on 14 to go 7 under and started thinking ‘is this even possible with as many holes as I have left?’ I had it in the fairway at 15 and actually thought it is possible,” he said.
Wheatcroft made three more in a row, from 12, 3 and 15 feet to reach 10 under for the round and knew he needed an eagle at the 547-yard, uphill 18th to step into history.
“I hit a good drive and hit a 3-iron as good as I can hit it,” he said. “I thought it was perfect but we got fooled again by the wind. It came up a little bit short but that was as good as I can hit it.”
Word had spread around the course and by the time he reached the green, players, caddies, volunteers and officials had joined the fans in hopes of witnessing the final, historic stroke.
“The putt stayed in the fringe. It came out funny for me,” said Wheatcroft, who watched the ball dive to the right before reaching the hole and settle about 15 inches away. “It was into the grain and ate it up and sent it a little bit right. It just killed the speed. I knew exactly what it was for. I told my caddie in the fairway ‘I don’t care if we make 5, but I want to putt for 3.’”
He settled for a 4 and will have to turn his attention to Saturday’s third round.
“I know it’s hard to come back after a low round. I’ve never had a 60 so I don’t know what to expect,” said Wheatcroft, who has never held the lead after any round on the Nationwide Tour or the PGA Tour. “I’m going to go out and try to do the exact same thing I’ve been doing -- try to hit it down the fairway and trust my golf swing.”
Canada’s Graham DeLaet rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt on his final hole to shoot even-par 71 and make the 36-hole cut on the number. DeLaet underwent back surgery in January to repair a herniated disc and hadn’t teed it up since last October when his rookie season on the PGA Tour was cut short.
“I didn’t play particularly well today but it’s fun to be back in the mix and feeling some nerves,” he said. “We got to the first green and my back felt a little stiff and I felt it had to pop or let go for me and I bent over and released and after that I was good for the day.”
The former Boise State University star set a simple goal for his first tournament -- survive the 36-hole cut.
“I definitely wanted to make the cut. It’s fun to have putts that mean something again. You can go out and play with your buddies but this is totally different,” he added. “I wanted to play four days and be able to test my body for four days of golf. I think I can now get a better idea of where I’m at going into next week. It’s fun to be back in competitive golf again.”
--A total of 60 players made the 36-hole cut, which came at 1-under-par 141.
--Erik Compton (69-67--136/-6) has two eagles in two days and both have come at the par-4 eighth hole. The hole played 329 yards on Thursday and 331 yards on Friday.
--Rookie James Sachek suffered a triple-bogey 7 on his opening hole but had no more miscues and added seven birdies for a 4-under 67. He is tied for eigith place.
--Charles Warren (69--140) had a pair of eagles on the front nine par 5s (Nos. 4 & 7), and is tied for 37th.