Wagner leads in final round of Greenbrier Classic
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - He has missed six straight cuts, sandwiched around one withdrawal. By his admission, he had two birdies in his previous two tournaments combined.
But the Greenbrier Classic has proved to be the cure for what ails certain players, and Johnson Wagner is the beneficiary so far. He fired a 6-under-par 64 Saturday for a 54-hole total of 14-under 196, two strokes ahead of Jimmy Walker and at least four shots ahead of the rest of the field going into today's final round.
Wagner's 64 follows a first-round 62 and a second-round 70. He has two bogeys in the 54 holes.
The three-time PGA Tour winner has had a wretched season, a year after finishing just outside the FedExCup top 30. He has missed 11 of 17 cuts and ranks 145th in the points standings.
How fortunate was Wagner for his trip to Old White TPC to come when it did?
"Very fortunate," he said. "I've kind of had this little three-week stretch pinpointed for a while as a place that I can turn my year around. Unfortunately, my game wasn't in any position in Hartford, and I really liked playing at Congressional last week as well [but he missed that cut, too].
"I'm happy to be playing well here."
Wagner, one of two Virginia Tech graduates in the field, peppered the 99-year-old course with seven birdies with just one bogey. He took the lead for the rest of the day with an 18-foot putt on the ninth.
His putting was outstanding - he needed just 26 such strokes, one-putted 10 times and hit four putts of 11-plus feet.
The birdie putts were nice, but the 21-foot putt to save par on the 13th was the sweetest.
Wagner's drive on the skinny 474-yard par 4 headed up the hill to the right, heading toward the twin purgatories of high grass and white out-of-bound stakes. Luckily, the ball bounded down to the area of the cart path and rested in the primary rough.
Without a clear shot to the hole, he settled for the rough at the left edge of the green, 67 feet away. His chip was well short, but he buried the putt.
With that, he settled down for five straight pars before a birdie on the par-3 18th, where he hit a 12-footer.
"The par putt I made on 13 sure seemed like an eagle when it went in," he said.
He hit 14 of 15 putts from inside 10 feet and 16 of 19 from inside 15 feet, and he hit 12 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in regulation - all signs of a recaptured confidence.
"The last couple weeks, I've just been trying to be positive and remember that I've won three times out here," Wagner said. "It was my goal when I was a kid just to play out here; now I'm a three-time winner and I have nothing to lose."
Walker is bidding for his third top-five finish at the Classic, after a pair of fourth-place finishes in 2010 and 2011. He thundered down the stretch with five birdies on the back nine for his own 64 Saturday. His score is the best of 14 players who have broken the par-70 in all three rounds.
"I like the tee shots, like the second shots and feel comfortable," he said. "There's a couple of places on Tour I feel really comfortable and seem to play well."
Swedish native Jonas Blixt, a Florida State graduate and 2012 event winner, sneaked into third place at 10 under with his second straight 67. He suffered a double-bogey at No. 13 but picked those strokes back up with birdies at Nos. 15 and 17.
Matt Jones, 19-year-old Jordan Speith and Steven Bowditch are tied for fourth at 9 under. Jones has rattled off 11 birdies in 24 holes after he was headed for missing the cut.
Spieth, the special temporary Tour member, needs a victory to join the FedExCup playoffs. He knows he needs a lower score to do it.
"[I need to] have a better start today," Spieth said. "Looks like another 67 probably won't cut it, so I'm going to have to shoot a really low round and that's saying a lot. The greens are firming up big-time and it's making some of these pins more inaccessible."
Six players are tied at 8 under: Pat Perez, Bill Haas, Rory Sabbatini, D.H. Lee, Tag Ridings and Tommy Gainey. Perez had the best round of the bunch with a 66, including an eagle at the par-5 12th.
Gary Woodland was the first of three players to post a 64 and came off the 1-under cut line to join a three-way tie at 7 under. Former Classic champions Scott Stallings and Ted Potter Jr. are part of an 11-way tie for 16th.
Matt Every, the second-round leader at 9 under, tumbled to a tie for 27th with a 4-over 74. He suffered four bogeys on the front nine and consecutive double-bogeys on the 13th and 14th.
Tom Watson, the 63-year-old Greenbrier pro emeritus, shot a 72 to slip to a tie for 62nd. He avoided the secondary "MDF" cut, which clipped 10 players for today's final round.
That will begin today with Martin Flores at 8:30 a.m. Wagner and Walker tee it up at 2 p.m.
"In Houston, when I won in 2008, I was really nervous," Wagner said. "I don't know how I managed to close that one out. I was shaking, felt sick all morning.
"It got a little easier in Mayakoba when I won in 2011, still very nervous. At Sony [2012 in Hawaii], it was a weird feeling; I felt pretty comfortable after the first few holes.
"Hopefully - I mean, last group on Sunday, you're always going to be nervous, but I'm sure I'll be OK."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.