FORT WAYNE, Ind. – While many of his competitors spent their afternoon at the mall, the movies or the motels, Oliver Schniederjans snuck out to nearby Chestnut Hills Golf Club and hit range balls for an hour, hoping to reinforce a few swing thoughts.
Now, that swing looks unbeatable.
Schniederjans closed with three late birdies and made a crucial par save on the final hole Wednesday to shoot 3-under 69 and take a three-shot lead entering the final round of the weather-plagued Junior PGA Championship. Denny McCarthy shot the low round of the day (66) to vault into second.
Schniederjans is at 9-under 135.
“I struggled with my swing on the front nine but definitely got it figured out, and I feel comfortable with my game going into tomorrow,” said Schniederjans, 17, of Powder Springs, Ga. “I’m pleased with a round in the 60s after a tough start.”
The low scores many expected never materialized on Wednesday, when rain-soaked Sycamore Hills endured another round of severe weather. Playing in the afternoon under clear skies with only a hint of breeze, Schniederjans preserved the best round of the second wave by getting up-and-down from short of the ninth green, his final hole of the day.
Schniederjans didn’t tee off until 2:20 p.m. EDT Wednesday, nearly 48 hours after he signed for a 66 in the opening round. He bogeyed his first hole, the par-4 10th, then worked out of an even more precarious situation on the 13th, where he tugged another tee shot left and his ball nestled against the base of a tree. Forced to chip out backwards, he stuck his approach to a foot and saved par.
Still, he found himself in a three-way tie for the lead at 5 under.
“It just goes to show you how quickly a lead can go away,” he said.
Justin Thomas knows the feeling. The first-round leader after a course-record 65, Thomas didn’t touch a club for two days and struggled on the greens, shooting 75 to drop five back of Schniederjans.
“Obviously I can get it going out here,” said Thomas, a semifinalist at the recent U.S. Junior Amateur. “It can be done, I just need to hit better wedges. I’m in contention, though, and that’s all I need.”
McCarthy was 2 under through four holes Tuesday when the second round was canceled after nearly 2 inches of rain submerged Sycamore Hills. On Wednesday, he made the turn in 2 under, then eagled the par-5 second after stuffing his long-iron approach to 3 feet. He birdied Nos. 4 and 5 to move to 7 under, tied with Thomas, before his tee shot at the sixth hole caromed off a tree and into the water. He made double bogey.
“I was in the zone, and it was a little shocking,” said McCarthy, 17, of Burtonsville, Md. “But you just have to forget about it, and I knew I could still put a decent round together.”
He rebounded by nearly acing the par-3 seventh, settling for a tap-in birdie, and closed with another birdie from a fairway bunker on the ninth, his final hole.
“Now I’m right back in the hunt and I have to shoot another good round tomorrow, which I’m very capable of doing the way I’m playing,” McCarthy said.
A solid round Thursday also could put McCarthy on the Junior Ryder Cup team. The winner and runner-up at the Junior PGA receive automatic berths for the biannual event played this September in Scotland. Six players make the team, and McCarthy and Schniederjans entered the Junior PGA ranked sixth and seventh in the points standings, respectively.
“I know there would be some captain’s picks,” Schniederjans said, “but I don’t want to mess with that. I want to go out there and win this golf tournament, and that’ll take care of it.”
Little wonder, then, that he and buddy Patrick Rodgers visited a local club late Tuesday afternoon to “just get a few reps in.”
“I think taking a day off from a tournament was awkward for most players,” Schniederjans said, “so I’m just happy I battled it out.”
That was the recurring theme in the girls’ division, as Kyle Roig stayed atop the leaderboard after an even-par 72 on Wednesday. At 2-under 142, Roig has a two-shot lead over Kristen Park (71), Cassy Isagawa (72) and Ginger Howard, who shot a sizzling 68 in the second round to vault into contention.
“I scrambled a lot today, so I’m happy,” said Roig, 17. “I prefer to lead going into the final round, that way people are chasing me and I am not chasing anyone. I just have to play my game.”
Everyone’s game has been tested after two rain delays made Sycamore Hills play much longer than 6,395 yards.
Howard didn’t seem to mind. Six shots back when she began her second round, she made four straight birdies around the turn to post the low round of the tournament in the girls’ division.
“I made everything I had to make,” said Howard, 16, of Bradenton, Fla. “I left some birdie putts short, but I am pumped.”
She’s tied at even par with Park, who won the AJGA Tournament of Champions in July. First-round leader Mariah Stackhouse is another shot behind after a 75, and Casie Cathrea, the 14-year-old standout who already has made two LPGA starts, also shot 75 in Round 2 and is four shots back.