Coming into the excruciating long week at PGA West for Q-school finals, Steven Bowditch felt like his form was taking a turn for the better. When you’re fighting to re-earn your job–the Australian had conditional status on the PGA Tour last year–the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
The Australian shot an eight-under 64 on the Nicklaus Tournament course to take a one-shot lead through 90 holes heading into Monday’s sixth and final round.
As he made his way toward the Golf Channel interview area, he asked me, “I’m not leading, am I?” I paused for a second and said, “Do you really want to know?” (Some guys don’t look at the leaderboard all week and I wanted to double-check before telling him.)
Indeed, you are.
“By how many?” he asked.
Let’s see…as of now, two.
Bowditch scratched his head and made an expression I can’t even describe and walked away. No massive expression of joy like many others. He was relatively stoic. All business. He knows there’s another round left and a lot can happen since the difference between first on the leaderboard and T24 is eight shots. And there will likely be guys outside the number going low and visa versa.
Reminder: top 25 and ties are awarded PGA Tour cards. However, there are seven players who have already secured their cards via finishing in the top 25 on the Web.com Tour money list. These guys decided to enter Q-school to try and improve their “number” or “priority ranking,” which is even more important with the compressed 2013 schedule.
As of now, Brad Fritsch and Nicholas Thompson are T11 and T15, respectively, so they don’t count toward the 25 cards. There are nine players tied for 24th, though, so if the tournament ended day, it wouldn’t make a difference.
But I digress. Back to the current leader.
Bowditch, who has struggled with major depression, opened the first round of Q-school by duck hooking his drive in the water on No. 10 at the Stadium Course. He scraped it around to finish with a one-over 73.
The general consensus among players for Q-school in these calm conditions is you can’t shoot over-par. Well, you can have one day, but only one player in 2008 when it was contested at PGA West in similar conditions posted a round over-par. The others were even or under-par in all six rounds.
Bowditch had a swing epiphany on the front nine of Nicklaus Tournament during the second round.
“I hit a terrible golf shot on No. 8,” said Bowditch after his round on Sunday. “And as soon as I hit that golf shot I knew what was wrong, and I fixed it straightaway, and ever since then I haven’t had a bogey I don’t think.”
He’s had one in the last 64 holes. I’m pretty sure every player in the field would take that.
What was the swing thought he figured out?
“My arm was way too high on the way back,” he explained. “It was making my shorter plane way too steep, so we just make it a lot more rounder, which we’ve been working on, but it was hard to put it in the game plan. I was hitting it all over the shop, all over the lot for the first 26 holes, and just found it and trust it and playing good ever since.”
His swing coach Scott Hamilton didn’t see Bowditch’s form coming together as much as Steven did. Scott was nervous about Steven going into TPC Craig Ranch, where he played second stage, because he was really struggling when they parted ways at Disney (Bowditch shot 82-74).
“Now, when he got here this week after like the second day, I’m like, man, this is the best it’s been ever probably,” he said.
Scott said he worked with Bowditch on getting the club more behind him and down the line, whereas he felt like he’s across the line when he got here earlier in the week.
They took a video of his swing after Bowditch’s epiphany and Hamilton described it as “awesome.”
“I looked at it on the computer last night, and it’s the best it’s been where it was behind him and down the line,” said Hamilton, who also teaches Kevin Kisner, Boo Weekley, Brendon Todd, among others. “So the club is coming out of the top correctly, which slowed the facedown through the strike. That’s the biggest thing. He’s got a really calm face going through the hit right now.”
In Scott’s opinion another beneficial move Bowditch made was putting a 2-iron, like a driving iron, in his bag, on Monday or Tuesday, and took out a blade 3-iron.
“Out here Steven is so long, there’s two or three of those holes, he’s got to have something to hit out there and play because if you hit 3‑iron you’re too far back and if you hit 3‑wood you bring the bunkers in play,” said Hamilton. “So that’s helped him some.”
Since Bowditch started working with Hamilton about three years ago, his iron play has improved tremendously.
“I was always an average iron player,” Bowditch said. “My short game and around the greens and my driving was sort of my, I guess, strength, so to speak. But he’s really made me into a much better iron player. You know, I struggled all year with the driver, just haven’t driven it real good at all this year, and it’s sort of just come together this week.”
The strange thing is Bowditch, who considers himself a good putter, hasn’t been able to adjust to the speed of the greens (which are relatively slow here and good putters prefer fast). He said this is probably the worst putting week he’s had all year.
“Putting has been brutal,” he said.
Good news is he’s swinging it real well and he can’t be putting too terribly if he’s 23-under.
Kris Blanks, who is still struggling with a shoulder injury, is one shot behind Bowditch. Prior to second stage, Blanks said he hadn’t played in a tournament in four months.
“I was just kind of enjoying being out playing again,” said Blanks earlier this week, referring to second stage at Plantation Preserve. “We’re just trying to have that same attitude this week.”
Between second stage and finals, Blanks didn’t pick up a club until he arrived at PGA West. He played a nine-hole practice round on the Stadium Course and another nine on the Nicklaus Tournament.
“I haven’t really felt much pressure,” Blanks told me on Tuesday. “I haven’t been able to practice much, so I’m going to use the first couple rounds to kind of knock off rust off, and hopefully I can play halfway decent and not get too far behind and try to catch up in the end.
“Or I can do like I did at second stage and get off to a hot start and keep going. Just going to kind of play the week out and see how it is.”
Blanks opened with a 65 and followed it with scores of 70-67-70-66. Yeah, I think he’s doing alright.
After opening the first two rounds with scores of 71-75, Kevin Kisner managed to bounce-back and fire 66-65-67 to put him right in the mix and inside the top 25 with one round to play.
“I wondered what Web.com Tour events I was going to get in,” said Kisner when I asked what his mindset was after posting 75.
(I believe he actually did inquire.)
“Yeah, it wasn’t a very good mindset. But then I played that course on the third round and got it going pretty good. And then everything started to change a little bit.”
“The third day I just got it going and was hitting it really good and the putter was working. Once you get hot, and then once I started backing it up the fourth round I started changing my mindset. I really didn’t change it after the third day because I was still so far out of it.”
On the fourth day, he started thinking he had a chance to get his card back and said, “Let’s go.”
And he’s continued to let it roll, and hopefully it will keep going on Monday.
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, ranked No. 33 in the world, withdrew after the fourth round. No surprise since he has full status on the European Tour and his world ranking gets him into the majors and WGCs.
He shot scores of 71, 73, 70, 81.
Despite the Spaniard’s obvious disappointment, he was still kind enough to stop and chat with me for a few minutes (which not a lot of guys would do).
Gonzalo was one of the four players who played in the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Championship in Dubai. He arrived Monday afternoon, and of course, battled jetlag, but he had no excuses.
“It was a long flight but it wasn’t a big deal,” he said on Saturday. “It’s 16 hour flight, then drive a few hours to here, but we’re used to it, we’re professional golfers and we play all around the world. That’s what we have to do.”
However, Gonzalo’s regret was not being able to properly prepare for the week. He played a practice round when he arrived Monday and then walked the other course after his first round on Wednesday.
“The only thing is I didn’t get to prepare for the golf tournament as good as I would have liked to,” he said. “Apart from that no excuses I just played poorly and that’s the way it is.”
Ross Fisher was eligible to play in Dubai, but he opted to skip it and focus on Q-school. In retrospect, does Gonzalo wish he would have done the same?
“I guess Ross wanted this more badly than I did,,” he said. “I just came here to give it a go. It was my first time coming to Q-school here. I had nothing to lose. I didn’t want to miss a big tournament like Dubai.”
However, he was obviously frustrated because he did very much want to earn his PGA Tour card.
“I wanted to be a member on this Tour, this is the big league, and unfortunately it’s not going to be possible but hopefully in the near future,” said Gonzalo.
1. Steven Bowditch 73-67-66-67-64—337 (-23) —–
2. Kris Blanks 65-70-67-70-66—338 (-22)
3. Derek Ernst 68-68-70-67-66—339 (-21)
Steve LeBrun 64-69-68-71-67—339 (-21)
Edward Loar 65-69-66-71-68—339 (-21)
See the full leaderboard here.
You’ll notice the Asian Invasion ran into some obstacles in the fifth round.
Can’t wait for tomorrow–should be an exciting, nerve-wracking and heartbreaking day. Oh, last year the leaders played the final round on the Nicklaus Tournament Course, the easier of the two. This year they’ll finish on the Stadium Course, where danger lurks almost everywhere, particularly the final few holes. The par-3 17th has an island green and called “Alcatraz” for a reason. This could definitely get very, very interesting…
I might wear all-black to mourn the last day of the last-ever Q-school.
Other random notes of interest
* There are seven 2012 Web.com Tour graduates in the field hoping to improve their eligibility standings for the 2013 season. All seven have earned PGA TOUR cards for next year. These players will not count toward the top 25 and ties who will earn their PGA TOUR card through Q-School, or against the next number nearest 50 to determine fully-exempt Web.com Tour membership.
Web.com # Player Score Standing
16. Lee Williams 6-under 354 T98
18. Brad Fritsch 18-under 342 T11
19. Morgan Hoffmann 9-under 351 T74
20. Brian Stuard 7-under 353 T92
21. Andrew Svoboda 12-under 348 T46
22. Nicholas Thompson 17-under 343 T15
25. Jim Herman 8-under 352 T85
Twelve players qualified by making it through all three stages – Lee Bedford, Donald Constable, Derek Ernst, Dusty Fielding, Vince Hatfield, Stephan Jaeger, Si Woo Kim, Joakim Mikkelsen, Henrik Norlander, Bhavik Patel, Ryan Sullivan and James White.
Player Score Standing
Lee Bedford 14-under 346 T31
Donald Constable 14-under 346 T31
Derek Ernst 21-under 339 T3
Dusty Fielding 9-under 351 T73
Vince Hatfield 2-under 358 T123
Stephan Jaeger 11-over 371 T166
Si Woo Kim 14-under 346 T31
Joakim Mikkelsen 6-under 354 T98
Henrik Norlander 12-under 348 T46
Bhavik Patel 13-under 347 T39
Ryan Sullivan 6-over 366 T157
James White 2-under 358 T123
* The scoring averages for the two courses (both are par-72):
Nicklaus Tournament TPC Stadium (host)
R1 70.506 71.023
R2 70.690 71.400
R3 69.207 70.845
R4 69.675 70.954
R5 69.452 71.819
* The toughest holes on the two courses through 72 holes:
Nicklaus Tournament No. 18 4.190
Stadium Course No. 13 3.239