St. Simons Island, Ga. — Charles Howell III is playing some of his best golf when he least expected it.
Coming from a missed cut in Mexico to a tournament where he missed the cut last year, Howell kept bogeys off his card for the second straight day and was just as good Friday on the tougher scoring course at Sea Island.
He had a 6-under 64 on the Seaside course and matched the best 36-hole score of his career to build a three-shot lead in the RSM Classic.
“You just never know what’s around the corner in this game,” Howell said. “I thought I played pretty good in Mexico and just missed the cut there. Came here, I like it here, I didn’t really know what to expect and then this happens. So it’s a crazy game and we’re reminded of it daily. This is another reminder.”
Howell was at 14-under 128, his best two-day total on the PGA Tour since the Las Vegas Invitational in 2003, when it was a 90-hole event.
He was three shots ahead of PGA Tour rookie Cameron Champ and Jason Gore, who only recently was certified as an insurance salesman and found out just five days ago there was room for him at Sea Island.
Gore was headed to Pebble Beach for an mixed invitational event until getting word that he was in the RSM Classic. This is his first tournament in three months, though he has kept busy playing golf with clients in his new insurance venture with his wife.
He looked plenty sharp in sunshine that warmed the Georgia coastline ever so slightly. Gore birdied his last four holes for a 63.
“I haven’t played a weekend in so long, I don’t know what to do,” Gore said. “I’ve got nothing to lose. This is fun for me. I’m an insurance salesman now. I’ve got a real job now and all that good stuff. Just glad my boss would let me off to play.”
His boss is his wife, Meghan, who presumably does most of the work. Gore plays a lot of golf with clients, and it restored some of the fun in the game that beat him up over the years.
Champ also birdied his last four holes and goes into another week in the mix on the PGA Tour. He already has one victory, the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi in his second start as a tour member, and was in range in Las Vegas and Mexico.
Playing with tournament host Davis Love III, his birdie run began with a tricky lie in thin sand to the left of the green about 90 feet from the hole on the par-5 15th. He blasted that out to 10 feet and made the putt, hit a wedge to 8 feet on the next hole, a 6-iron to 5 feet into the stiff breeze on the par-3 17th and closed out his big run with a 10-foot birdie putt for a 63.
“I decided to just get in the fairway, just give myself looks on the greens, and that’s been paying off so far,” Champ said. “On top of that, I’ve been making the putts.”
Nick Watney shot an 8-under 64 on the Plantation and was five shots behind.
The final two rounds will be at Seaside.
Howell can’t think of a better two days striking the ball, evidenced by missing only two fairways and two greens over 36 holes, both of those on Friday at Seaside. He thought he played better than his opening 64, mainly because Seaside features so many holes with a cross wind.
He also picked up most of his shots on the inward nine at Seaside, which was the early part of his round because he started on No. 10. The 14th hole along with water causes the most consternation because the wind is strongest along the water, blowing into him and to the right. With the tees slightly forward because of the wind, he hit driver and 9-iron to 15 feet, and then birdied three of the next four holes.
Howell has two PGA Tour victories in nearly 20 years, and yet the weekend feels like a new experience to him. This is only the fifth time he’s had the 36-hole lead, and the first time since the 2003 Tour Championship.
“I’ve almost done everything in my career, but playing with a lead isn’t one thing I’ve really done a whole lot,” Howell said. “I could talk to you about finishing second or third a lot. As many golf tournaments as I’ve played, this is still relatively new for me, which is kind of surprising at almost 40 years old.”
Howell says one problem he has battled is thinking too far ahead and trying too hard. The golf courses, especially Seaside because of the cold and wind, have kept him from thinking too much about anything except the shot in front of him. For two rounds, it has worked beautifully.
The LPGA will have either 25 or 26 different winners in 32 events this season, depending on what happens when the final putt of the CME Group Tour Championship drops Sunday.
Commissioner Mike Whan is just fine with that sort of diversity.
Whan delivered his annual “state of the LPGA” address at Naples, Florida, during the second round of the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, revealing that next year’s total purses will exceed $70 million for the first time. A new sponsor for the Women’s British Open will be revealed soon, and the entire 2019 schedule is expected by the end of the month.
And having a tour where women from 10 countries have won this year is just fine with Whan.
“I’d definitely prefer the top 10 players in the world rankings come from 10 different countries,” Whan said. “And the reason is, if I get one player that wins 33 percent of the time she tees it up, when she doesn’t tee it up it’s not the same event.”
The way this tournament has gone after 36 holes, there might be one more name added to the winners’ list for 2018.
Lexi Thompson – still winless this year – shot a 5-under 67 on Friday to move to 12 under for the week, three shots clear of first-round leader Amy Olson (72) and Brittany Lincicome (71).
Thompson hit all 18 greens in regulation, and hasn’t dropped a shot yet through two rounds.
“This is one of my favorite tournaments just because I can drive to it and I have so much family and friends out here and a lot of fans,” said Thompson, a native South Floridian. “It means the world to me just to come here to Naples and play in front of them. Whether I do good or bad, they’re always there supporting me, giving me high fives. That’s what makes the game.”
The tournament within the tournament this week is the conclusion of the Race to the CME Globe, with world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn now in control of that again. She’s one of five women who entered this week with the best chance of taking that trophy and $1 million bonus, and is back atop the projected standings after shaking off a bogey-bogey-bogey start to finish with a 71 and get to 3-under.
“I’m very proud of my back nine,” Jutanugarn said.
Nasa Hataoka, who was flawless Thursday – eight birdies, no dropped shots – to move into the top spot in the Globe projected standings, went the other way Friday. She shot a 76, four bogeys and no birdies.
Only four women have won multiple tournaments this season – player of the year Jutanugarn has three wins, as does Sung Hyun Park. Hataoka and Brooke Henderson are two-time winners, and 21 other women have prevailed once.
“Everyone always says we need more American players to do well, but it’s not that we’re not doing well,” said Lincicome, one of eight American women to win once this season – and whose round Friday went haywire when a suddenly balky putter forced her to drop four shots on the final four holes. “It’s just this tour is so global and everybody is so darn good. We can’t get away with mediocre golf. You have to play your best all the time.”
The tour will set a record for purses in 2019 for the third straight year, bolstered in large part by CME Group raising the purse for the tour championship from $2.5 million to $5 million next year. The only event with a $5 million purse in 2018 was the U.S. Women’s Open. That seems likely to rise next year, since Whan said the CME event would not have the biggest purse on tour in 2019.
Whan said the variety of winners from the variety of nations – which isn’t a new concept for women’s golf – is a precursor for what he expects to see in men’s golf within the next decade, and he’s convinced the game will be better for that.
“It’s good for our business,” Whan said. “Success from all over the world means TV interest from all over the world.”
Matt Wallace took his shots on time and took the lead at the World Tour Championship.
The 28-year-old Englishman, who was fined 3,000 pounds ($3,800) for slow play in the first round, shot a 7-under 65 at Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for a one-stroke lead over Danny Willett (67), Jordan Smith (68) and Adrian Otaegui (68). Wallace was at 11-under 133 overall in the season-ending championship of the European Tour.
“I’ve expected higher from myself and that’s just killed me,” Wallace said. “So, I’m playing with freedom now and trying to place myself as high as I possibly can come the back nine holes on Sunday. That’s when I normally try and kick in and want to win a tournament.”
Wallace, the most successful player on the European Tour this year with three titles, won six lower-tier Alps Tour titles in 2016 before moving onto the main tour early in 2017 by winning the Open de Portugal. This year, he has won the Hero Indian Open, the BMW International Open and Made in Denmark.
Francesco Molinari (73) dropped outside the top 25 with three bogeys in his last six holes, giving Tommy Fleetwood a chance in the Race to Dubai for the European No. 1 title.
Molinari was tied for 27th at 3 under, while Fleetwood (67) was at 8 under and tied for sixth. To successfully defend his Race to Dubai title, Fleetwood needs to win the tournament and hope Molinari finishes low enough.
“Sometimes you just need to do a little bit of work,” Fleetwood said. “Felt like I hit it on range this morning with a decent understanding of what I needed to do, and a couple of good swing thoughts, and I was a lot more consistent today.
“It (catching Molinari) is still a very difficult task. I’ve only won once this year. It’s not like I’m a prolific winner this year.”
Patrick Reed, playing alongside Rory McIlroy, shot a 66 and improved to fifth place at 9 under. McIlroy shot a 67 and was tied for sixth alongside Fleetwood, Kiradech Aphibarnrat (66) and Dean Burmester (65).
Matt Kuchar and Keegan Bradley were big movers at the Australian Open at Sydney, with Kuchar moving into a tie for the clubhouse lead after a morning round of 5-under 67.
Kuchar, who won last week’s PGA Tour event in Mexico, his first victory in four years, was level with Australian amateur David Micheluzzi, who shot 69. They had 36-hole totals of 7-under 137 at The Lakes.
Bradley shot 66 and was among those tied for third, one stroke out of the lead.
Byeong Hun An, who opened with a 67 to lead by one stroke after the first round, had an afternoon start Friday.
The Australian Open is the first qualifying tournament for next year’s British Open at Royal Portrush, with the top three players not already exempt earning spots.