MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Brian Gay still has a chance to earn a berth in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black by winning the St. Jude Classic.
Not that he really thought about it until someone mentioned it to him.
Gay shot a 6-under 64 Thursday for a one-stroke lead over Jimmy Walker after the opening round at TPC Southwind, and the man who missed Open qualifying by three strokes on Monday had written off any chance of playing next week in New York.
The USGA has one spot for a multiple PGA Tour winner over the last calendar year. The others competing here who would qualify with a win include Richard S. Johnson, Parker McLachlin, Michael Bradley and Jerry Kelly.
“For some reason, I didn’t even think about obviously winning here would be two wins between,” Gay said. “Somebody mentioned it I think yesterday but didn’t really think about it. Just figured I would have next week off.”
Gay missed the Masters when he ranked 31st on the money list with invites going to the top 30, and he ranked 57th in the world with the top 50 going to the U.S. Open. He rebounded by winning the Verizon Heritage at Hilton Head, withdrew at The Players Championship, missed the cut at the Byron Nelson and tied for 27th at Colonial after shooting a final-round 64.
A rib injury caused back spasms on his last night at the Byron Nelson, requiring treatment to get him through Colonial. Gay said he had further treatment last week during his time off, which cleared up his back spasms. But he still has a tight neck that didn’t hamper him Thursday as he hit 14 of 18 greens and needed only 26 putts to card seven birdies with a lone bogey.
“I don’t know if there’s something else going on in there or not. I don’t think it’s bothering me as far as swinging the club, but just kind of a pain in the neck,” he said.
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UNEXPECTED START: Jose Maria Olazabal didn’t expect to find himself on the leaderboard after the first round, not with the arthritis that prevents him from scheduling more than four weeks out.
But he carded a bogey-free 4-under 66 for his best round this year, putting him two strokes back of Brian Gay in a tie for third after what he called an excellent day.
“I didn’t expect it to be honest, but that’s the game of golf,” Olazabal said.
This is only his fourth event this year following 2008 when he made only four PGA Tour starts. But Olazabal tied for sixth at Hilton Head for his first top 10 since 2007. He said he is feeling OK, not 100 percent or pain free. He credits trainers with treating him and keeping him going.
“I’m pushing myself as much as I can,” he said.
Olazabal tied for 36th at Memorial and followed up with 36 holes in an U.S. Open qualifier on Monday. On Thursday, he took advantage of a course softened a bit by a thunderstorm before the round started followed by some spotty rain early.
Next up will be the French Open, then he will try to qualify for the British Open. And his health issues?
“It’s something that I don’t wish on anybody,” he said.
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HALF DAY: For Swede Mathias Gronberg, the chance to play only 18 holes instead of 36 Thursday seemed like an easy day at the office. That’s because it was compared to his own personal golf marathon that featured 36 holes on Sunday followed by another 36 on Monday.
Unable to play at Memorial, Gronberg went to the Nationwide Tour last week where he won the Prince George’s County Open, playing 36 holes and going 12 under with no bogeys on Sunday. He then had a 3 1/2-hour drive back to New Jersey that night before rising early Monday for a two-hour drive to the U.S. Open qualifier in Purchase, N.Y., for another 36.
He missed qualifying by seven strokes.
A little tired and stiff from all of the golf, Gronberg spent Tuesday at home napping in the morning and afternoon broken up by playing with his children. He arrived in Memphis on Wednesday and had some practice in the afternoon.
“I actually was walking up 17 fairway and I was thinking, ‘Oh I feel really good’ especially when I knew that I didn’t have to play another round of golf,” Gronberg said.
“It prepares you. Obviously I played very good golf Sunday … and that really gave me a good confident boost hopefully for the rest of the year, not only for this tournament but for the rest of the year.”
The result was a 4-under 66 that was a stroke off his best round this year, a 65 in the second round at the Texas Open where he finished tied for 11th and his lone top 25 result of 2009.
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DAY TOO LATE: Justin Leonard came in as the defending champion with two wins at TPC Southwind since 2005, and he gave his pro-am team a 5-under Wednesday that had them leading the event at that point.
He didn’t get any carryover.
Leonard opened on No. 10 and bogeyed the first six holes to drop to 6 over. He birdied two of the final three, including the par-4 18th, and made the turn at 4 over. But the front nine wasn’t much better with a couple more bogeys. He finished with a 76 that matched his worst score since his first round here in 1994. Leonard missed the cut that year.
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QUOTABLE: “It’s kind hard talking to people with M&Ms on their shirt. You can’t eat M&Ms on the lap band,” said John Daly, who had lap band surgery earlier this year. He played with Tim Herron, who has an M&Ms logo on his shirt.