SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – For two days, all you could see through fog was a red, white and blue leaderboard at the 92nd PGA Championship.
But for Round 3, with a clear sky and breathless views of Lake Michigan in focus, what took shape at Whistling Straits was a dominant pro golf storyline.
We get it on a weekly basis with players from South Africa and Australia, the United Kingdom and Spain, Argentina and Colombia, Ireland and Sweden. But on a day when Nick Watney threatened to put this championship into a deep sleep, we received a huge dose of international flavor from a most improbable source: Wenchong Liang of China.
The 32-year-old Liang, who is ranked 78th in the world, stunned the festivities with a dazzling 8-under 64 that sent him roaring up the leaderboard faster than Dustin Johnson clubhead speed.
Starting Round 3 as a complete afterthought, what with his T-40 position and 1 under total for 36 holes, Liang played the back nine in 5-under 31, then ran off four pars going out on the front.
Little did anyone know he wasn’t going away, because he birdied Nos. 5, 6 and 7. Then at the ninth, he slam-dunked a putt of about 30 feet to save par and a bogey-free course-record effort.
Whereas Americans were 1-2 and six of the top 11 names Thursday and in possession of the first four spots on the leaderboard through 36, they are now mixed in with men from all corners of the globe – from Australia (Jason Day and Steve Elkington), Germany (Martin Kaymer), Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy) and even from China.
Liang is playing in his second PGA Championship and just his fifth major. He’s a seven-time winner on China’s PGA Tour and owns one European PGA Tour win, the 2007 Singapore Masters.
Liang’s appearance near the top of the leaderboard was a surprise, but perhaps shouldn’t have been. After all, it was just a year ago when an unknown from South Korea, Y.E. Yang, chased down and beat Tiger Woods in this major championship, and we have had on the PGA Tour this year alone 15 tournaments won by foreign-born players, including majors by men from Northern Ireland (Graeme McDowell, U.S. Open) and South Africa (Louis Oosthuizen, British Open).
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Cink not sunk: The five-plus hours of fog delays Thursday and Friday mornings meant that the second round pushed into the Saturday lunch hour. When finally the cut was made, 72 players were in at 1-over 145, but none did it as dramatically as Stewart Cink.
Having fought an uphill battle thanks to an opening 77, Cink scratched his way back to 1 over for the tournament when he bogeyed the par 4 14th. Even worse, he missed a very short putt for birdie at the par 5 16th. It got him to the 494-yard par 4 18th needing a birdie to make the cut.
He pulled it off, too, drilling a 3-iron from 230 yards to make birdie, shoot 68, and make the cut on the number.
Not that he wasn’t pleased to remain in the tournament, “but I’m more proud of the fact that I covered up that miss at 16,” he said.
As for sitting 14th in the Ryder Cup standings is added incentive to play well, Cink shrugged it off.
“I don’t feel like I’m an issue,” he said.
Then, explaining that he’s been in this position before, trying to impress a captain and push to make a team, “and I’ve thrown up on myself.”
So, no, he wasn’t going to put pressure on himself this time around.
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He’s no sprinter: With Tiger Woods trailing by just five strokes through 36 holes, it was easy to stir up anticipation of a challenge. The only thing is, that’s a tough proposition given the way he plays the front nine at Whistling Straits.
In three days, Woods has played the front nine in 5 over. Even more confounding is the fact he’s made just one birdie, that being at the ninth in the second round.
By comparison, Woods has played the back nine in 7 under.
He’s also unlikely to make much of a charge when he plays the par 5s as he has. Through three rounds, he’s 1 over on his 12 chances at the long holes – three bogeys and just two birdies (both at No. 11).
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Veterans school the kid: How badly did things go for Woods in his 30 holes of golf on Saturday (12 to finish up Round 2, then Round 3)?
Well, consider that he got waxed by a pair of 47-year-old playing competitors, Vijay Singh (66-70) in the morning and Steve Elkington (67-72) in the afternoon.
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Forward thinking: Playing for the second straight week after having sat out since May in the aftermath of hand surgery, Anthony Kim missed the cut with rounds of 74-75.
Still, he was not disappointed.
“The whole idea is to knock off the rust,” Kim said.
Kim left Whistling Straits sixth in the Ryder Cup standings, knowing there’s a chance he could fall to ninth or worse and thus lose an automatic berth. But that was out of his control; instead, he was focused on playing next week’s Wyndham Championship, then the Barclays to kick off the FedEx Cup playoffs.
He sits 13th in the standings, so he’s in good position to get in all four of them. Which is good, because “I will play in as many of them until they tell me to quit playing.”
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Sleep not in the job description: Unless you are among the handful of folks who can afford the five-star accommodations of the nearby American Club, you’re committed to lengthy commutes if you’re going to be part of the show here at Whistling Straits.
That especially goes for the caddies, the unheralded cogs to this production.
Kim Henley, who carries for Brian Gay, started his week in Milwaukee, but decided the 65-mile trip each way was too grueling. He changed to a hotel near Green Bay, though it’s still a 45-minute ride.
Especially challenging was the scenario made necessary by Thursday and Friday fog delays. It meant caddies didn’t leave Whistling Straits until nearly 9 p.m. A quick dinner, in bed by 11, then up at 4 a.m. for the completion of the second round – that was the glamorous life for these caddies.
“And I’m old, I’m fat and I’m slow,” Henley said, with a laugh.
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One ace, many winning hands: It wasn’t quite Hale Irwin circling the green to high-five fans at the 1990 U.S. Open, but Tom Lehman showed that same spirit after making an ace at the par-3 17th.
After his 4-iron shot at the 217-yard hole, Lehman accepted congratulations from playing competitors Darren Clarke and Troy Matteson, then exchanged high-fives with fans as he jogged to the green.
“The round was going nowhere fast,” Lehman said. “One great swing, looked perfect all the way.”
It was the first hole-in-one in a PGA Championship since 2008 at Oakland Hills (Fredrik Jacobson). In 2004 when the championship was held here at Whistling Straits, Robert Gamez and Irwin had aces.
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Familiar name, unfamiliar position: Jim Furyk is pushing for his first top 10 in a PGA Championship since 2002. That year at Hazeltine, Furyk led after the first round and finished ninth. In seven PGAs since, Furyk has missed two cuts, finished 30th or worse twice and done no better than T-18.
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And on a count of eight. . .: Rob Labritz of Pound Ridge, N.Y., the only club pro to make the cut, made a quadruple-bogey 8 at his 18th hole, the par-4 ninth, to spoil what had been a memorable day. He went out in 33, and was 3 under for the tournament. But that quad and incoming 41 pushed him to 2 over.
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Still haunted by Friday: Though he finished Saturday with a 3-under 69, Ernie Els was still shaking his head about the double-bogey finish the day before that gave him a second-round 74.
“I kind of shot myself in the foot with that last hole,” Els said. “I don’t know if I was tired, but I was definitely out of sync with my swing (Friday).”
Though he’s just 5 under and eight off the lead, Els has something to play for in the final round.
“I’d like to finish off a tournament,” he said. “If I have a good one tomorrow, I think it really will help me in the next four (FedEx Cup playoffs).”