Getting off to a quick start is nothing new for Charlie Wi. The hard part is figuring out how to finish.
Wi took the 18-hole lead for the third time this year — and the eighth time in his PGA Tour career — by closing with back-to-back birdies Thursday for an 8-under-par 64 on the easier Palm Course at Disney. That gave him a one-shot lead over Camilo Villegas and Tommy Gainey in the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic.
This is the 184th career start for Wi on the PGA Tour, and he’s still looking for his first win.
Wi atop the leaderboard was a reminder that there’s more at stake in the final PGA Tour event of the year than players trying to keep their jobs. Each event is another opportunity for him to get his first win, and that’s would it take for him to have a chance of getting into the top 30 on the money list to earn his first trip to the Masters.
”Top 30 is definitely a goal,” Wi said. ”I’m not just showing up to play. You’ve got to have goals. I at least want to give myself a chance.”
Gainey doesn’t have that opportunity. He won for the first time on tour three weeks ago at Sea Island when he closed with a 60, but he was so far down the money list that even a win at Disney wouldn’t be enough for him to get into the Masters.
Even so, Gainey is on a roll. He is 17 under par in his past two rounds, courtesy of the 65 he posted on the Palm.
”My goal is just to win, anyway,” he said. ”The way I’m playing right now, keep hitting the golf shots and keep hitting it in the fairways, and with the way I’m rolling this putter, it’s going to be good by Sunday afternoon.”
Villegas was another story.
A rising star in 2008 when he won consecutive FedEx Cup playoff events and rose to No. 7 in the world, Villegas has fallen on tough times. He hasn’t won since then, failed to qualify for any of the majors this year, has plunged to No. 214 in the world ranking and is at No. 150 on the money list. Only the top 125 earn their full cards for next year, and if Villegas falls out of the top 150, he’ll have to go to the second stage of Q-school.
One thing that has changed is his attitude. Villegas realized he has a great job, stopped getting angry with his golf and decided to start having more fun. It appears to be working, and now the Colombian can only hope the change is not too late.
”Trust me," he said, "people remind you, ‘Hey, you’re 150th on the money list.’ And I’m kind of like, `Life is good. Just keep going.’ If you’re good at this game, if you’re out, you’ll be back in. Who knows? Just take it one shot at a time.”
The top 12 scores came from the Palm, which played about 1.7 shots easier than the Magnolia, where the final two rounds will be played. Henrik Stenson and Charles Howell III were among five players whose 68 was the best score at Magnolia.
Brian Harman, Scott Stallings and Russell Knox, the rookie from Scotland who is outside the top 150, were at 66. Kevin Chappell, at No. 123 on the money list, overcame an early bogey and was in the group at 67.
”I feel like if you give me enough opportunities, which I’ve had, I’ve got to play well at least one week,” Chappell said. ”If it’s the last week of the year, that’s great.”
Chappell is well aware of his standing on the money list, though he was doing his best to hit good shots and to try to make putts. He changed coaches this year and was making decent progress until getting a six-week break when he failed to get past the first round of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
”I got engrossed with the golf swing, and when I came back to the fall finish, I was playing golf swing. I wasn’t playing golf,” Chappell said.
Villegas has also faced a few challenges. At some point this year, he realized that he played golf for a living and figured it wasn’t worth getting overly frustrated about his scores.
”The game comes and kind of bites us, and the last year and a half hasn’t been pretty, I can tell you that,” he said. ”Even though I kept putting in the hours, sometimes it doesn’t matter. You put those hours in and if you’re not having fun, you’re not going to get much out of it. So I’ve definitely changed a little bit the attitude. And, yes, I’ve been playing a lot better. . . . I’ve had a great attitude the last few months and I’ve been really close.”
The tough part will be going to the Magnolia course Friday, and that goes for Wi, too.
He opened with a 61 at Monterey Peninsula in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and took a three-shot lead into the final round until he opened with a four-putt double bogey and wound up finishing second to Phil Mickelson. He had the lead at Bay Hill and was tied with Tiger Woods going into the weekend until he faded, and Woods won his first tour event in more than two years.
Mickelson is in Singapore. Woods is taking time off. The biggest name at Disney is Davis Love III, who opened with a 73. Wi still has a long way to go before Sunday.