I’m telling you right now, I’m putting Steve Wheatcroft on the Popup Players list as a result of what he’s done over the first 36 holes of the Shell Houston Open: he shot two 67s to lead by one when guys like Phil and Rory and Ogilvy and Mahan and Snedeker were struggling just to make the cut (yes, yes, no, no, no).
That wouldn’t normally be much of a story, but Wheatcroft has been playing in the backwaters of professional golf since 2007 including mostly anonymous stints on the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour, although he did have “7 or 8” wins on the mini-tours. He could make it to the show and to Triple-A, but generally had more missed cuts than successes.
And so he has been Monday qualifying in order to get into events in recent times. Just this week, after missing getting into the Web.com Tour event in Lafayette, Louisiana, he hung out all week long working hard on his swing:
I was actually an alternate for the Web.com event in Louisiana. Ended up not getting in. So I stuck around and practiced for the whole week, and I’ve been working on some things with my swing coach and just wanted to implement those on the range, work on them a little bit.
He decided to try to Monday qualify for Houston because it was only a 3-hour drive:
I came here because it’s only about a three-hour drive from Lafayette. Lot of the Web.com guys come over here. We had an off week anyway. Monday qualifiers are terrible. They’re just not fun. Plain and simple. I did it for years. I was on the PGA Tour in ’07, played terribly. I had no status.
So I had to be back to Monday qualifiers and pre-qualifiers the next year. I hate them. I’ve had success with them, but I just don’t like them. I don’t like knowing that if you make a bogey when — on one of your first, four, five holes, you started pressing. I can leave after 9 holes. Lot of that has been going on this year. I know I’m playing well. I knew I wasn’t playing 63 well, but I can throw up 68 or 9 or 70 every round where, if you’re in a tournament, you’re going to play well, but Monday qualifiers it’s hard to get through doing that.
It was close and luckily my 5-under this week was good enough. I knew my swing was getting a lot better in the last month or so, just a matter of showing up at the right time, I guess.
All those years he worked at getting better. In 2010, he was second alternate into Houston and his number got called:
It’s a learning process out here. No matter what you do and — this tournament for me in 2010 was a huge learning experience. I was a second alternate Thursday morning. I didn’t think I was going to get in. I had a flight scheduled that afternoon. They said, we might have a tee time for you. You’re on the tee in 20 minutes. You’re paired with Phil and Adam Scott. Phil who? (Laughter). Is it a different one? There’s only one. Be a little nervous if it’s who I think it is.
It was great, playing with those guys and top notch players, getting the galleries. Throw me into the fire, let’s see what happens. It was awesome. You learn kind of what they do, and you watch some of the best players in the world hit shots and you’re like, I can’t hit that shot. Got to learn that one.
Still can’t hit some of them, but got to learn — you watch them play golf courses and things like that. All this thing, this whole process is a learning experience one way or the other.
And you have to admire the level of commitment this guy has. He had an opportunity for an exit strategy. It was tailor-made for him, even a little too good to be true. It was at Washington and Jefferson College in his home town of Washington, PA:
They offered me the head men’s and women’s coaching job and membership to a country club where I used to be the cart boy at. They play the [Web.com] Mylan there now. Just — I sat there, can you give me a couple days, and thought about it. And I said I could go home and I could coach and still play [the tours] in the summer.
I said, if you’re going to do this, if you’re going to do it, you got to do it. Everybody told me that, you can’t — I can’t say [yes] right now. You got to go full bore. You can’t half it out there. You got to practice all the time because everybody else is.
We don’t know, of course, how the week is going to play out for him. Winning seems a stretch at this point, but so does everything else he’s accomplished so far. A top-10 gets him into San Antonio next week.
But he has “moving day” to get through Saturday and then the run for the gold on Sunday. But as ever, the guys right behind him on the leaderboard are playing well too and all of them are seasoned enough to “finish it off.”
But now they all also enter into the mindset of, “I gotta get it done today,” and there’s nobody who knows better how to play in that mindset than a Monday qualifier. You’re talking about grizzled men used to operating on the razor’s edge.
And it’s easy to root for them because in our finest moments, there’s a little gypsy in all of us too.