The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 8, 2012

Simpson ends the day on top

U.S. Open champ takes 2-shot lead into final round

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Who said all of golf’s big guns are out at The Greenbrier Classic?

U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson spent most of the day Saturday chasing others at the top of the Greenbrier Classic leaderboard. But he ended the third round of the third-year PGA TOUR event just where he started it — on top.

Simpson played his second straight bogey-free round, picking up speed on the back nine with four of his five birdies on the hottest day of the year in Greenbrier County. He carded a 5-under par 65 to move to 14-under for the tournament, two strokes ahead of Troy Kelly and three in front of Ken Duke, J.B. Holmes and Charlie Beljan.

“I just had to be patient there early; I couldn’t get anything to drop on the first six holes,” said Simpson, who has just one bogey on his card all week and sank a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to complete his round. “But, you know, this golf course will give you some birdies. If you kind of keep plotting and putting the ball in the fairway, you’ll have plenty of wedge opportunities.

“That’s what I did, and, fortunately for me, I took advantage of those holes coming in.”

Kelly made the biggest climb on moving day. Playing

his second year on the PGA TOUR — his first came in 2009, when he made just

three cuts — the former University of Washington

golfer, who finished 11th on

the Nationwide Tour money list last year to earn his way back to golf’s big show, started the day in 22nd pace at 4-under. He finished at 12-under after a round of 62 that included eight birdies, five of them on the front nine.

“I got off to a good start,” said Kelly. “I made about an eight-footer on the first hole, and I made about, gosh, probably a 20-footer on 2. So that got my round going at least, got me comfortable for the day.

“It was just nice to see some putts go in. I haven’t made a lot of putts pretty much the whole year. I mean, if you look at my statistics, my ranking’s not very good in the putting category. So it’s good to see some putts go in.”

Kelly’s biggest check on the PGA TOUR to this point was for $16,140, a reward for a 47th place finish at the Shell Houston Open in April. After making just six cuts in 14 events so far this season, he’ll be eyeing a much bigger prize today. The winner’s share of The Greenbrier Classic’s $6.1 million purse is $1,098,000.

“My time the last couple years out (on the Nationwide Tour, now the Web.com Tour) has been good, and last year I got into contention sometimes and had some success,” he said. “So it will be a different stage (today), but I can kind of learn off those, and I think (today) will be a good learning experience.”

The top of the leaderboard is loaded with golfers, setting up plenty of drama for the final 18 holes. Twenty players are within six shots of the leader — five times this year a golfer has come from at least six strokes back to win a PGA TOUR event — including the group at 11-under.

The most intriguing story in that bunch may be that of Charlie Beljan, the PGA TOUR rookie, who followed up a 62 on Friday with a 67 Saturday. The Gateway Tour graduate, who never even played on the Web.com Tour before making the jump to the top level, has wowed the galleries, who were looking for a favorite with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson out, with his long drives and enthusiastic personality.

“I woke up this morning and my heart was racing,” said the 27-year-old, who stands 6-foot-4. “I called a whole bunch of my friends who have been in this position. I called Dr. Bob Rotella. I was freaking out.

“And then as soon as I got out here to the putting green and the driving range, and once I got on that first tee, they all just went away. It was a joy to be able to play with Webb Simpson, Jonathan Byrd, two great guys, and they made it a little easier.”

Ken Duke turned professional when Beljan was just 10 years old. The 43-year-old has never won on the PGA TOUR, and it took a win at the 2011 Nationwide Tour Championship to even get back to the top tour.

“I came into this year really excited about playing,” said the Hope, Ark., native. “I had a few good years on the PGA TOUR, and then I lost my card and felt like I had a second chance this year. So I really wanted to be ready to come out here and play at the consistent level that I’ve played in the past.

“If we keep knocking on the door, maybe it will open. You just never know.”

Holmes is the most accomplished of the golfers near the lead. He’s won twice on the PGA TOUR, and he also helped the University of Kentucky win an SEC title while in college.

Holmes made up for a single bogey on Saturday with five birdies in a round of 66.

“I feel like I had a lot of birdie opportunities and just missed some good putts,” he said. “I didn’t have as many go in as I’d have liked, but that’s always the case, I guess.”

But even with so many interesting stories, Simpson will be the guy who draws the big galleries in today’s final round — and for good reason. Not only is he the most recent Major winner, he’s also quickly becoming one of the game’s stars. He’s projected to climb to No. 3 in FedEx Cup points with his play this week on The Greenbrier’s Old White TPC course, and he’s gunning for his fourth PGA TOUR win, while so many others are trying to find their first.

“I think an advantage a guy like me would have is that I had a lot of experience the last year close to the lead, so I’ve got a lot of opportunities to draw from, like this tournament last year (when he was 10-under through nine holes but missed the playoffs after struggling on the back 9),” said Simpson, who was followed throughout his round by his wife, Taylor, who’s scheduled to give birth to the couple’s second child this month. “I certainly think it’s really hard to get your first PGA TOUR win, but I can’t really be thinking that, because as soon as I do, I’ll let up a little bit and guys will be storming past me.”

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Tom Watson may not be in contention today, but the 62-year-old has still turned a lot of heads by doing something that Woods and Mickelson couldn’t do — make the cut.

“It’s nice playing against the kids,” said The Greenbrier’s pro emeritus, who shot a 71 on Saturday and is at 1-under for the tournament. “The first two days I played better than I did (Saturday), but I left a number of putts out there. Putting wasn’t as good as it used to be when I was a kid, when I made everything. The scores could have been a lot better if the putter acted like it was 26, rather than 62.

“But I’m happy to be here and be able to play on the weekend.”

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Today’s final round will begin at 8 a.m., with players teeing off in twosomes from the No. 1 tee. The final pairing of Simpson and Kelly will hit the course at 1:50 p.m.

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Vijay Singh, who took the opening-round lead with a 63, came back from a frustrating 74 on Friday with a solid 68 in the third round. He’s at 5-under for the tournament. Fan favorite John Daly is also 5-under, while 2011 Greenbrier Classic champion Scott Stallings is 3-under. Jeff Maggert, in contention at the beginning of Saturday’s round, took a slide down the ladder with a 4-over 74. He’s at 4-under for the tournament.

— E-mail: chuffman@register-herald.com