LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – 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 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 last 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.
But 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, 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.
The first two days of Disney are a pro-am, and it’s common for some players to ask to be paired with friends — Mike Weir and Dean Wilson, Harris English and Brian Harman. A year ago, the tour put Luke Donald and Webb Simpson in the same group as they battled for the money title.
This year is a little different.
Rod Pampling is at No. 124 on the money list. He was paired with Billy Mayfair, who is at No. 125. Right behind them were Gary Christian and Alexandre Rocha, who are at No. 127 and No. 128 and right in the mix to keep their jobs.
Pampling opened with a 70 and Mayfair a 72. Christian and Rocha each had a 71.
“I was a bit surprised by that,” Pampling said, grinning. “We’re all grinding. … You don’t need the guys right behind you and next to you. But that’s OK. Billy is easy to play with. And it’s not going to change anything, anyway.”