Trying to slow down the players on the Nationwide Tour is akin to slapping the brakes on NASCAR. Bottom line: It’s against their nature.
But officials at the third annual Gila River Classic are doing their best to curb the red numbers this week.
First they switched golf courses from Whirlwind’s wide-open Devil’s Claw to the tenaciously tighter Cattail. Growing the gnarly rough to six inches in some spots also figured to take its toll.
Guess what? It’s working.
At the midpoint, veteran Brian Wilson and rookie Johnson Wagner are leading the pack with 11-under-par 131 totals. Modest, when compared with last year’s score of 17-under after 36 holes. Even the cut, which allowed 68 players to advance at 3-under, reflects the difficulty, as the same standard a year ago was 5-under.
Despite a more difficult track, it seems the mind-set never changes.
“You’ve just got to keep playing aggressive,” explained Wilson after his 6-under 66 in a light rain Friday morning left him tied with Wagner, the first-round leader who birdied his last hole for 69 late in the afternoon.
“I’ll have to shoot this low, or even lower, to win this weekend,” said Wilson, who has two runner-up finishes in three years on the Nationwide.
The 72-hole record is 23-under by Ben Crane in 2001, the first year of the event was held at Gila River. Chances are, with the pins tucked and the rough growing thicker by the day, the winner won’t reach 20 under.
Just don’t expect players like Ryuji Imada (66) or Fran Quinn (64) — both at 10 under — to adhere to such thinking. Or for that matter, a trio at 9 under, which included last week’s winner, Scott Gutschewski (66), to aim for the middle of the green. Even former PGA Tour veteran Tommy Tolles (66), who is 8 under along with six others, is plenty capable of pushing the pedal to the metal.
ON THE FRINGE: Former Arizona State star Todd Demsey is at 6 under after a second straight 69. It’s a good feeling for the Scottsdale resident, who has been plagued by health problems since turning pro in 1997. The most recent was a benign, golf ball-sized tumor associated with “fifth-nerve schwannoma.” Doctors got most of it during an operation last year, and Demsey said he hopes they are able to remove what’s left of it when they operate on his left sinus in December.
“The left side of my face is numb, and there’s always a twinge in my left sinus,” he said. “It‘s a crazy thing, so I’m pretty happy just to be out here.”
Demsey is having a solid year, currently 38th on the money list and guaranteed of at least his Nationwide card for 2004.
Tee times begin at 7:18 a.m., with the leaders going off at 12:15 p.m. For information on specific players, call (520) 796-3501.
DJ Jones, a member of the Gila River Community, received exemptions into the tournament in 2001 and this year. Despite the high hopes, he has been disqualified both times. The first came when he changed equipment (putters) during the second round. The latest came Friday, when Jones exited the course following his 16th hole. He was 18-over par at the time.