The Track Meet Open – On Steroids

To review, when the sun set Thursday night on the Humana Challenge in La Quinta, California, we had two players, Camilo Villegas and David Toms, who were tied for the lead by shooting spectacular, 9-under par, 63s. They had a one-shot lead over four guys and two shots over seven. The three courses: PGA West, Palmer Private; PGA West, Nicklaus Private; and the La Quinta Country Club got roughed up pretty thoroughly.

With that kind of scoring, I looked at the pristine playing conditions and dubbed it the Track Meet Open and wrote about how deep the players had to continue to go in order to keep pace. The point being one about mastery, of course: watching the players pressing for lower and lower scores, all the while playing in the relaxed state that would allow it.

So let’s see what happened Friday. David Toms kept the thread going by shooting 7-under 65 to end up in three-way tie for the lead.

Ben Crane bettered Thursday’s scores by shooting 9-under 63 to join Toms and he did it early. So he might have been the field’s “rabbit” proving that really low scores were still possible. He was the guy who won last year’s McGladrey Classic by shooting two sets of bookend quadruple-birdies to win.

Last year’s Sony Open and Waste Management Open winner, Mark Wilson, joined them by shooting a 10-under 62. And it was a thing of beauty with 5 birdies on the front and an eagle and 3 birdies on the back. It was nice to see, because after his two early-season wins, the rest of his year was a little lackluster making 19 of 26 cuts, but with only 9 top 25s including his two wins. Having watched him closely during his Phoenix win, it was a mystery to me. Friday’s round proves him to be the solid, tidy player I thought he was.

Three shots back of them is a quartet of players at 13-under par. They are led by Thursday’s co-leader, Camilo Villegas, who “cooled off” a bit with 4-under 68 to go with his first round 63.

Probably the most noteworthy of the four after Villegas is Harris English, a Tour rookie, All-American out of Georgia who won a Nationwide Tour event last year as an amateur, only the third to do so in the Tour’s long history. He matched Mark Wilson’s 10-under 62 by averaging 343 off the tee, hitting 12 of 14 fairways, 16 of 18 greens and needing only 25 putts. And the guy’s a rookie! (T13 at last fall’s Q-School).

The other two guys at 13-under got there the same way, Chris Kirk and Bobby Gates shot the same 9-under 63 that was so spectacular yesterday. Kirk is in his second year having earned his spurs finishing Top 25 on the Nationwide in 2010. Gates is also in his second year after earning his card back with a T3 at Q-School. He’s a slight lad weighing in at 230 on a 6′ 5″ frame.

The thing about all these new guys is that they are clearly not afraid of anything. If you can dominate by shooting these kinds of scores this early in your career, obviously something in the game has changed. The era of the years-long apprenticeships appears to be over.

Look at last year’s major winners. These are the majors, the toughest tournaments to win. South Africa’s, Charl Schwartzel won the Masters at 26 with an historic 4-birdie finish; Rory McIlroy picked his career up out of the ashes of his Masters’ disaster and at 22, won the U.S. Open by 8; and Keegan Bradley’s fierce determination never left his face when he won the PGA Championship in a playoff at 25.

This is why it’s a great era in which to be writing a blog about mastery. Yes, all these scores in La Quinta were shot in near-perfect condition. And yes, the courses are what has become short, averaging just under 7,000 yards. But you still have hit the fairways, hit the greens and make your first putt…a lot!

And if you think this is all so easy, ask the guys who are outside the cut line because the best they could manage was 5-under for the two days. That’s half the field! 5-under and you’re going home unless you have a very solid Saturday.

But to put the punctuation on all of this mastery, I saved the best for last. Tour iconoclast Ryan Moore had the low round of the day shooting 11-under 61. And to frame the greatness of his round, he did that with two bogeys. He started his round, par, bogey, bogey. Then he went eagle, par. Then he made six birdies in a row, followed by another par, and then five more birdies in a row, finishing off with a closing par. Geez.

But what he’s done is become the poster boy for the guys in the back of the bus redeeming their tournament; having shot just even par on Thursday, he moved up 113 spots on the day.

There’s a bunch of guys who will be holding that intention in their minds as they begin their day on Saturday.

It’s cut day.

The Golf Channel, 4PM to 7PM (Eastern).

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