After shooting a pair of 67s at the Shell Houston Open, Steve Wheatcroft is leading a PGA Tour event for the first time in his career. And he got into the tournament — which boasts some big names, like Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy — the hard way: He earned one of the hard-pressed four spots in the Monday qualifier (go low or go home), but it wasn’t without a bit of grief.
Michael Putnam, a fellow player and friend, played a little prank on Wheatcroft, who had teed off early and killed time by going to the movies.
“We went to the range to hit balls — Paul Haley and I — just in case we had to go to a playoff,” said Wheatcroft, a one-time winner on the Web.com Tour, in his post-round presser. “And Putnam actually comes running up to the range and says, here we go, we’ve got a playoff.
“Paul and I just sunk. We started hitting balls and getting ready to go. One of the officials came up and said, ‘Alright, we got one group left and then you guys are good.’
“I said, ‘What’s the playoff? Is it 3 for 2? 4 for 3? Like, what are we doing?’ He just kind of looked at me funny. I turned and looked at Mike and he’s laughing at me. So he’s got one coming to him.”
There was no playoff — Wheatcroft, who shot five-under in the Monday shootout, safely qualified for this week’s Tour event.
“I came here because it’s only about a three-hour drive from Lafayette,” said Wheatcroft, referring to the city where the Web.com Tour event was held last week. “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 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.”
Wheatcroft has bounced back-and-forth between the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour the past six-seven years. The last player to Monday qualify and then go on to win the event was Arjun Atwal at the 2010 Wyndham Championship.
The 35-year-old who walked on the golf team at Indiana University — yes, he’s a huge Hoosier fan and mourning last night’s loss in the NCAAs — has been working hard with his swing coach Matt Killen and felt like it was coming around. However, he said he struck the ball terribly on Thursday but his putter saved him. His ballstriking improved for the second round and he hit 16 of 18 greens Friday.
Wheatcroft, who earned his 2012 PGA Tour card after graduating from the Web.com Tour (again), only has conditional status on the Web.com Tour this season. He played in Panama and Colombia so far this year, finishing T21 and T7, respectively.
Things are clearly looking up and Wheatcroft might be dangerous because he has nothing to lose.
“I don’t have to worry about the money list out here,” said Wheatcroft, who only earned $135,196 in 23 starts on the PGA Tour in 2012. “I don’t have to worry about my status out here. If I win, it’s great. It’s kind of a win or nothing. I just get to go play golf this week. Everybody else can worry their status on the PGA Tour. Hopefully I can make enough money to get either temporary status out here. Or if I win, that’s obviously the goal.
“I’m playing this well, I played terribly yesterday tee to green. I made a lot of putts. I’m hitting the ball better, but if I can be on top of the leaderboard at this point, I know I can keep playing well. There’s no reason to think I can’t. I’ve never won on the PGA Tour. I’ve won on the Web.com Tour, I’ve won by 12. I know I can keep going forward.
“Who knows. I could shoot 61 tomorrow, I could shoot 81 tomorrow. I really don’t know. I’m not going to sit here and think about it too much. I’m going to think about the first tee ball on the first tee and we’ll go from there.”
When asked if he had ever led a PGA Tour event, he replied candidly, “Oh God, no.”
Wheatcroft, who was in good spirits, is feeling happy — though he can’t pinpoint it on anything that’s happened lately.
“I definitely play better when I’m happy,” he said. “I know that. If I’ve got stuff going on with my golf swing or stuff going on at home or just things, I had my mind occupied sometimes, I don’t play my best golf and get angry a little easier than normal. This week I’ve been very relaxed. I don’t know why. I found myself today, I got a song stuck in my head this morning. I’m singing it down the fairways, just bouncing around, not thinking about anything.”
What song? Wheatcroft has had “Runaway” by The Killers stuck in his head.
Wheatcroft has relied on his putter throughout his career, but last season he struggled on the greens. He’d been putting with the cross-handed grip the last four-five years, but he switched back to the conventional grip in the offseason. He said he was watching golf on TV and guys like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy all putt the same way. So Wheatcroft decided to simplify things and go back to the basics.
Since his Hoosiers were eliminated from the NCAA championship, Wheatcroft is now pulling for Florida Gulf Coast University.
“If my team is not going to win, let’s start pulling for some underdogs,” he said. “I was one.”
He’s largely still considered a little guy. And he’s an easy guy to root for this weekend.
(AP Photo/Jon Eilts)