Wells Fargo Championship: 54 Holes Down, 18 to Go

At one point late in Saturday’s third round at the Wells Fargo Championship, there were five guys tied for the lead at 13-under par. There were a couple of low rounds for the day, but for the most part, the Quail Hollow Club was doing a pretty good job of creating a bottleneck at the top.

In the end, Webb Simpson, hotelier to his good friend, Nick Watney and his wife, managed to make two birdies in the closing holes to pull ahead by a stroke at 14-under. Their week-long deal that highest score each day takes the garbage out after dinner had Watney looking for his flashlight on the way home. He dropped a stroke on 18 to fall two strokes behind.

What helped Simpson was that he was paired with Tiger Woods in the first two rounds. Having only played one other round with him and playing in front of his hometown family and friends, he was extremely nervous. Yet he thrived:

Q. You talked earlier in the week that — when you talk about Tiger, the crowds, the nervousness was kind of a good thing because it helped you focus. Has it almost been a perfect scenario for you with Tiger, with taking the lead going into the final round as opposed to if you were second or third or a stroke or two off?

I think so. I mean, it seems like when guys on this level do get nervous, it seems like every time they focus a little better, they just tighten up their thoughts a lot better.

For me, four years on Tour now, seems like when I’m more nervous, for the most part, I play better. It’s not a good thing when we get comfortable out here because you start just getting lazy and losing focus on your target, and so, like you said, it is a good thing at times.

Former iconoclast turned conventionally dressed professional golfer, Ryan Moore, will be paired with Simpson on Sunday and looking to add to his lone victory at the 2009 Wyndham Championship in Greensboro. He shot a bogey-free 68 and had a some very thoughtful answers to questions dealing with mastery:

Q. As crowded as it looks like it’s going to be at the top, I know you’ve got to focus on yourself, but do you think about being more aggressive?

No, I don’t approach it any differently. I like how I’m playing right now, and I’m just going to keep trying to do exactly what I’m doing. I mean, I’m just playing good, solid golf, and in the end if that gets me right in the mix, then great. There’s no reason to adjust or change. I mean, I’m playing well, and just going to keep trying to do what I’m doing.

One of the temptations a player has when the pressure mounts is to “fix” his swing or his game to the tightening circumstances. Moore seems content to abide by the watchwords “know thyself.” And that extends to whether or not to look at the scoreboards:

Q. Do you watch the scoreboard tomorrow?

I mean, it’s hard not to see them sometimes, so I don’t go out of my way to be checking, but you know, coming down the stretch, maybe the last four or five holes, I might be paying attention a little bit, seeing what’s going on. But yeah, I’m not a big scoreboard watcher.

Aside from his formerly idiosyncratic attire, he had a “bunched up” looking swing that was just as distinctive. He won with it, but felt that he could do more with what he had without a complete change:

Q. You say you’re hitting the ball well. Have you made any adjustments with your swing?

You know, not really. I started working with a new [coach] about a month and a half ago, and really, it’s about as un-technical as possible. I mean, we’re really just working on being just a little more athletic, honestly, in the end. That’s really what we’re working on, just kind of a more basic, athletic motion, just kind of allowing my body to move how it should [that is to say, with more freedom].

In this simple answer to a very open-ended question, he encapsulates why so many Tour players are the way they are in terms of their tireless, deadpanned focus: “every shot matters.” It’s that understanding that separates the elite from the best:

Q. What are you still learning out here…?

Gosh, you learn stuff every single week, every single tournament. It’s hard to say. You know, for me, it’s just learning how to just get as much out of every single round, every single golf tournament I possibly can. It’s easy to get frustrated and get down and kind of carelessly give up a shot or two here or there, and you just know in the end every shot matters, and just over the years you just see just how much the little things can — one shot here and there can affect you.

It’s being able to just be more patient and be able to put stuff behind you better and just get the most out of every tournament I can.

But there’s more than one way to realize the best in yourself. D.A. Points used to be a classic deadpan Tour pro. And then he was paired with Bill Murray in the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and had no choice but to lighten up…and he won his first and only tournament so far. Murray walks the fine line between being completely irreverent with the circumstances and the crowd, and being respectful of the moment that a shot must be played.

In these two answers, Points talks about compartmentalizing yourself from what else may be going on and learning to approach things from a looser perspective:

Q. When you have a logjam like this at the top of the leaderboard, is it more about you and less about the other guys?

Sure, because you can’t control what anybody else is going to do. Yeah, I missed some putts today, but I might make them all tomorrow and have a great round. That’s how this game is and you can’t worry about anybody but yourself.

Q. In your CBS interview you were talking about keeping it loose, talking to the fans. Are you planning on keeping yourself distracted?

Yeah, I gave a lot of high fives and a lot of knuckles today, and I’ll do more of the same tomorrow because that’s better for me. If I start getting down on myself and getting frustrated if I hit a bad shot or miss some putts, it’s just going to bury me. That was one thing I did well today, and I’m going to try to do that more tomorrow.

And finally, this young kid named McIlroy — you’ve heard of him, the No. 2 player in the world — roared up the leaderboard with a 6-under 66 to slide into T4, just two strokes back of the lead. And he likes his chances:

It all depends on what the guys do out on the golf course, but hopefully I’ll be within two or three of the lead, and two or three shots over 18 holes isn’t that much, so hopefully I can give it a good go tomorrow.

And there is one other great story developing in the field, and as a former Monday qualifier on the Champions Tour, it’s near and dear to my heart.

Patrick Reed has been on a three-week whirlwind that has him sitting at 7-under and T15. How he got there is the stuff of a big fat movie deal…but maybe not because it’s so improbable and no one would believe it.

Three weeks ago he was Monday qualifying in San Antonio for the Valero Texas Open when he was pulled off the third green and offered a sponsors exemption into the field after Peter Lonard withdrew. With his fiancee on the bag, he made the cut and a decent check and headed to New Orleans to try to qualify there. Same thing: made the cut, nice check. And then on to Charlotte to try there and he qualified again.

This AP story in the Washington Post does a great job of laying out the details of their three-week treasure hunt. It’s a quick read with lush detail and will turn you into a fan.

Sunday’s going to be a great day. Be sure to make popcorn.

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