Cameron Champ, a 24-year-old from California, surged out of the gates Friday with a front-nine 28 and shot a 7-under 65 to take the lead at the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Detroit — Sometimes, golf just seems so darn easy, like early this season, when Cameron Champ, a rookie, won the Sanderson Farms Championship.
Then other days, golf just seems so darn impossible, like the previous 10 PGA Tour tournaments, in which Champ made just two cuts, missed seven and withdrew once.
And then — magic! — golf is easy again.
"It's definitely been a rough month, month-and-a-half, two months for me," said Champ, who could've keep going — it's really been more like five rough months. "But I've been working hard, so just to kind of see it slowly pay off is good."
There was nothing slow about Champ's front nine in Friday's second round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, as he stormed up the leaderboard with an opening 8-under 28 that featured six birdies and an eagle. It was the lowest nine holes of his life, and it triggered whispers throughout Detroit Golf Club of a "59 Watch."
That never materialized, as the putts didn't fall on the back nine and Champ settled for a 7-under 65. He enters the weekend at 13 under, a shot behind leader Nate Lashley.
Champ, 24, from Sacramento, Calif., turned pro in 2017 and earned his PGA Tour card for 2018-19, then won his second start of the season, the Sanderson Farms Championship in February in Jackson, Miss.
Like the Country Club of Jackson, which has roots to 1914, Detroit Golf Club is an old-style course, with roots to the early 1900s. Detroit Golf Club is the oldest club on Tour.
"Very comfortable here," Champ said. "Love the greens. Love everything about it."
Champ's hot streak started with a birdie at No. 2, then another on 3, 4, 5 and 6 — the birdie on the par-4 sixth capped with a 14-foot, 6-inch putt that he admitted he wasn't expecting to make. That came after a 14-foot downhiller for birdie on 5.
This also was the point of the round where he started to think, "Ummm, 59?"
Those thoughts didn't go away on the next hole, when he bombed his drive 365 yards — he's one of the longest drivers on the PGA Tour, so long that would you believe that wasn't even his longest of the day (that was 368, a bit later) — and had just a short iron in from 179 yards, which he put to a little more than 7 feet. He made that to get to 7 under through seven holes.
That stretch was among the best on the PGA Tour this season, tied with Carlos Ortiz's six-hole birdie/eagle stretch at January's Desert Classic, or the old Bob Hope.
"The front nine was about as big as the hole's probably ever looked for me," Champ said. "Just everything went together. Made some good quality putts."
He capped off the front nine with an 18-foot, 10-inch putt for a birdie at the par-3 ninth hole, for a cool 28. It was tied for the lowest nine on the PGA Tour this season, with Ortiz and Chez Reavie, who did it last week en route to a victory in the Travelers Championship.
On the back nine, which has two modest par 5s, the fans started to get word of the hottest round on the course, and thus started to flock over in droves on Nos. 10 and 11.
"Whenever we made the turn," Champ said with a smirk, "because I think D.J. (Dustin Johnson) and them were right there. They weren't watching us."
While the fans came over for the back nine, the momentum didn't carry over.
And the "59 Watch" was unofficially cancelled at the par-4 13th.
Narrow with trouble right, Champ laid back with an iron off the tee. Then from 162 yards, he blocked the iron way right — he knew it right away, dropping his club in mild disgust. The ball hit a tree, left him short-sided in the rough, and he made bogey.
Then he parred the par-5 14th, and a great round wasn't going to be a historic one. Not that he's complaining.
"The back side I really didn't play terrible," said Champ, who actually made some par testers early on the back, then made par on 17, despite being behind a tree on his approach shot, before he made bogey at 18. "I just hit a few shots that kind of limited my ability to get it close to the hole. I fought hard, missed a few putts that I wish I could get back, but that's how it goes."
If it seems like a calm, collected, casual answer after a pretty darn great round of golf, you have to understand Champ's perspective.
A former star golfer at Texas A&M, his PGA Tour career couldn't have started any better, with eight made cuts right out of the gate, including the win, a sixth-place showing and a tie for 10th, to go with a tie for 11th and a tie for 12th.
Then came the hard times, starting in mid-February. Since then, entering this week, he had shot as many rounds in the 80s as in the 60s (one each). He also battled a back injury in the spring.
Interesting, Champ said he has learned to embrace failure. Those were his words.
"Out here, obviously, I'm a rookie and I had some early success," said Champ, whose playing partners, J.B. Holmes (9 under) and Max Homa (7 under), will have a shot to get into contention on the weekend. "I just turned 24 (June 15), so I had a lot coming at me and distractions. I had to just really adjust and prioritize what's important to me. It was good personally, it was kind of a wakeup call.
"And I've been working hard, so it's just nice to see the results coming."
Even if nobody else saw this coming.