Golf

Wheatcroft shares Wells Fargo lead, bidding for breakthrough win

Steve Wheatcroft watches his drive from the 16th tee during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship on Thursday.
Steve Wheatcroft watches his drive from the 16th tee during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship on Thursday. TNS

In the past five weeks on the PGA Tour, a pair of 30-something veterans have validated their tour presence with their first wins.

Shell Houston Open winner Jim Herman, 38, has one win in 108 PGA Tour starts. Brian Stuard, 33, a winner Monday in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, has one win in 120 PGA Tour starts.

Going back to February’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, 40-year-old Vaughn Taylor won for the first time in 11 seasons.

So Steve Wheatcroft, 38, who is winless in 122 career PGA Tour starts, knows what’s possible after shooting a 7-under-par 65 Thursday to share the lead after the opening round of the 14th Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club.

“It’s nice to see guys close to my age and in my scenario being successful,” Wheatcroft said. “Any week can be your week out here.”

Wheatcroft is tied with Andrew Loupe, whom he played alongside in the opening round, a shot ahead of Anirban Lahiri and two ahead of both Kevin Chappell and Dawie van der Walt.

The Wells Fargo has its share of star power this week, but the tournament’s big names were unable to climb the leaderboard in the first round.

There are five players in the top 10 in the world entered, and the best they could muster was Justin Rose’s 2-under 70, which included a double bogey on his final hole. Rickie Fowler shot a 1-under 71, Henrik Stenson shot a 72, defending champion Rory McIlroy shot a 73 with three late birdies, and FedExCup points leader Adam Scott also carded a 73.

Wheatcroft had no such scoring issues. His round was powered by a pair of eagles on the par-5 fifth and 10th holes, and he played Quail Hollow’s par-5s 6-under par with birdies on the seventh and 15th holes.

I know I’m playing better. I’ve made six straight cuts but I haven’t done anything with any one of them. I know it’s getting there, it’s close so I’ll just keep fighting. I’ve been down this road so many times, nothing surprises me anymore.

Golfer Steve Wheatcroft

He chipped in from 43 yards in the rough on the fifth hole, and hit a 3-wood from 280 yards to 6 feet for eagle on the 10th. He also made two more birdies and a pair of bogeys.

He believes the last time he made two eagles in a round was a few years ago at Quail Hollow. His best finish in four previous trips to Quail Hollow is a tie for 38th last year, when he carded a 66 in the second round.

“It's just a fun golf course,” Wheatcroft said. “You can get the par 5s. Obviously I did today. I'm very average lengthwise out here and if I can play them 6 under, anybody can play them 6 under.”

Wheatcroft’s best career finish is a tie for second in last year’s CareerBuilder Challenge at PGA West.

Though he has made six consecutive cuts, his best finish in 15 starts is a tie for 36th last week.

“It's been a bad year. Just things just haven't gone my way and I haven’t put a good tournament together yet,” he said. “I know I’m playing better. I’ve made six straight cuts but I haven’t done anything with any one of them. I know it’s getting there, it’s close so I’ll just keep fighting. I’ve been down this road so many times, nothing surprises me anymore.”

Wheatcroft is a Pennsylvania native and 2001 Indiana graduate who lived near Pittsburgh for awhile and he set a goal this year of qualifying for the U.S. Open at Oakmont outside Pittsburgh.

Wheatcroft said he has been struggling with his driver in recent tournaments but hit 10 of 14 fairways off the tee Thursday.

He needed just 23 putts, while Loupe attempted just 24.

“Loupe and I just kept feeding off each other all day long,” Wheatcroft said. “He was rolling in putt after putt at the beginning. I think he had six putts through seven holes at one point today. We were making jokes about it and luckily I started pouring it in after that.”

Loupe missed the cut in his only previous Wells Fargo with a 3-over 147 in 2014. The 27-year-old native of Baton Rouge, La., attended LSU and is in his third year with PGA Tour status. He recorded a career-best tie for third in the CareerBuilder Challenge in late January, and his three top-10s all came in his first six starts this season.

India’s Lahiri has 15 victories worldwide but is also seeking his first PGA Tour title, as well as his first top-10 of the season in his 13th start.

Quail Hollow was still soft and playing fairly long Thursday because of rain in recent days, though the tour moved some tees up to shorten some par-4s.

“Luckily they put a couple tees up with some holes into the wind so that was definitely nice of the Tour to help us out there,” Fowler said. “I don’t think I had a 5-wood into a par-4 today so that was nice. I had a couple in the pro-am [Wednesday]. I thought the course was in great shape, obviously a little soft with the rain. That’s going to be part of it. You have to deal with a little bit of mud here and there but it’s not bad.”

The greens are firm because of a sub-air drying system beneath them, and there’s only a slight chance of rain Friday before a sunny and hot weekend.

“We were having a hard time holding a lot of shots so I thought the greens dried out quite a bit,” said Phil Mickelson, who shot a 69. “I think the greens will be very difficult come the weekend. And the fairways, they’re in such great shape, they seem to be drying up. I think tomorrow if we don't get any more rain, I think you’re going to see a fast and firm golf course for the weekend.”

Alan Blondin: 843-626-0284, @alanblondin

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