By Cam Huffman
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS —
There was plenty of maroon and orange lining the Old White TPC Course Thursday, and the Virginia Tech Hokie fans had a reason to display their colors proudly during the opening round of the 2013 Greenbrier Classic.
Johnson Wagner and Brendon de Jonge, teammates at Virginia Tech, where they were just a year apart, were among the leaders on a soggy course that led to plenty of low rounds.
More than 60 players shot under par Thursday, but the Hokie duo posted two of the best rounds.
Wagner sits in a tie with Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey for the lead after 18 holes with an 8-under-par 62. His Hokie buddy — de Jonge, who finished third at the 2010 Greenbrier Classic and tied for fourth the next year — is in a tie for eighth after a bogey-free 66 that included birdies on holes 3, 7, 8 and 16.
“It’s great,” said Wagner of the Virginia Tech party at the top of the leaderboard. “For years, I’ve wanted to be paired with (de Jonge) Saturday and Sunday when it mattered. We’ve been close a couple times, but it would be cool for us to be fighting it out coming down the stretch. He’s had an amazing last four or five years, and he’s certainly overdue for a win. And I would love to take it away from him.”
Wagner actually entertained thoughts of the magical number of 59 after eagling the par-5 12th to move to 8-under with six holes to play on the par-70 Old White TPC. But after a run of six birdies and an eagle in 10 holes, he shot par on the final six to post the 62.
“I had a nice start to the day,” he said. “I birdied 3, 4 and 5, hit a great shot out of the trees on 7 to about three feet and birdied 9 for a 29 (on the front nine), maybe my first competitive 29 on the PGA TOUR, which was cool. Then the 59 thought started creeping in. I blocked it out for a few holes and birdied 11, chipped in for eagle on 12 and then the 59 thoughts really got in my mind.
“But I managed to hit really quality shots and quality putts coming in. I’ve been disappointed with 72s and 79s last month, so I’m very happy to be disappointed with a 62 today.”
Wagner had been struggling coming into The Greenbrier Classic. His last seven tournaments included six missed cuts and a withdrawal at the Memorial, another cut he would have surely missed.
He’s made just six cuts in 18 events this year, the last coming in the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head Island in late April.
“I’ve struggled with my ball striking all year, even my good finishes,” said Wagner. “After Hartford a couple weeks ago, my coach watched me play Friday. We hadn’t been working all that much together this year. He said, ‘Come down and get it straight.’ After three or four days, I got it where I kind of felt like I did leading into the Sony Open last year, where I played the best golf of my life. Confidence, for me, can turn around real quickly.”
The Old White TPC may have also aided Johnson’s turnaround. He played on the course three or four times a year while at Virginia Tech, and he’s played in each of the three previous Greenbrier Classics, finishing 11th in 2011.
“I’ve always loved The Old White,” said Wagner. “I’m a really big fan of Seth Raynor and C.B. McDonald-designed golf courses, and this is just kind of my paradise playing a tournament on his course. Where I won the Sony Open in Hawaii (in 2012) was a Seth Raynor golf course, so I really enjoy playing classically designed golf courses.”
He has plenty of support with his wife, Katie, and kids, Graham and Marianne, with him this week and legions of supporters following his every move.
“When I’m playing well, I want everybody that I know to be out following me,” said Wagner, who explained it’s only extra pressure if he’s playing poorly. “I love putting on a show for my family and friends.”
Wagner’s 62 wasn’t the only low number out of the course for the opening round. Gainey, a former assembly line worker in South Carolina before winning “The Big Break VII: Reunion at Reunion” in 2007, also posted a round of 62 that included a stretch of four straight birdies on holes 8-11. He also birdied two of the last three on Nos. 16 and 17.
“I put a new Callaway driver in the bag,” said Gainey, giving much of the credit to his equipment. “It’s called Optiforce. I missed one fairway today with this new driver, and that says a lot. If I can hit fairways, I can score. Today with the soft greens, I made some putts.”
Webb Simpson — the 2012 U.S. Open winner, who held the lead after the third and fourth rounds of the 2012 Greenbrier Classic, before a 73 on Sunday dropped him to a seventh-place finish — shot his best round in 11 trips around The Old White TPC, carding a 64 to sit in a two-way tie for third with Jin Park.
Daniel Summerhays, Neal Lancaster, Tag Ridings and Steven Bowditch are all tied for fifth at 5-under, while a group of a dozen that includes de Jonge and Scott Brown, who missed the final round of the 2012 Greenbrier Classic for the birth of his daughter, are tied for ninth at 4-under.
The most popular group of the day was the left-handed threesome of Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and 2012 Greenbrier Classic champion Ted Potter Jr.
Huge galleries followed the star-powered grouping, much to the delight of The Greenbrier chairman and CEO Jim Justice.
“This is just great,” he said, watching fans pour down the hill from the 11th tee to keep pace with the group. “The crowds are huge, and the roars sound just like Augusta.”
The group didn’t produce many fireworks on Independence Day, however.
Watson took low honors in the group, carding a 2-under-par 68 — erasing a pair of bogies with four birdies. Potter finished at 1-under, while Mickelson, trying to make his first Greenbrier Classic cut in three tries, took a triple-bogey on the par-5 17th, after hitting his tee shot into the water, and then bogeyed the par-3 18th to finish with a 4-over 74.
Tom Watson, the 2014 Ryder Cup captain and The Greenbrier’s pro emeritus, turned back the clock with a 68. The 63-year-old is just six shots out of the lead, as is Kenny Perry, who won a Major Championship for the first time in his career with a victory in the Senior Players Championship last week in Pittsburgh.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.