May 23, 2014

Tour rookie Garnett carves out Colonial lead over proven vets

All cut survivors are within 8 strokes of top spot in tightly packed leader board.

Heading into the weekend rounds, the winner’s plaid jacket at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial remains available to a limitless collection of cut survivors.

Brice Garnett, the greatest golfer in the history of Missouri Western State University, fired a second-round 66 to reach 7 under par for the tournament and carve out a one-stroke lead over his two closest pursuers: Chris Stroud and Robert Streb. Among the Friday front-runners, none has won a PGA Tour event.

But a lot of players within eight strokes of the lead have a long list of tour titles or major championships. That is because all 75 cut survivors are within eight strokes of the lead on a tightly packed leaderboard that features the highest 36-hole score for a Colonial leader (7 under) since 2008.

Without question, the weekend rounds will offer a new experience for Garnett, 31. The PGA Tour rookie is making his Colonial debut and will be pursued by Adam Scott, the world’s No. 1 golfer, as well as 13 others ranked No. 41 or higher.

Among that group, seven are perched within four strokes, with Dustin Johnson (5 under), Jimmy Walker (5 under), Jordan Spieth (4 under), Jason Dufner (4 under), Harris English (4 under) and Brandt Snedeker (4 under) looming closest in the rearview mirror.

“I’m super excited,” Garnett said. “I’m going to try and embrace it. This is pretty cool to walk these fairways that everybody else historically through the game has walked. I’m just keeping my head down and trying to make as many birdies as possible.”

That strategy worked frequently for Garnett during a record-setting college career that included 12 victories and led to his 2012 induction into MWSU’s athletic Hall of Fame. But the golfer who still lives in Gallatin, Mo. (pop. 1,700) and does most of his practicing at a nine-hole facility (Daviess County Country Club) has yet to sleep with the lead at a PGA Tour event, let alone hoist the hardware after the final round.

He’ll learn Saturday how he handles life as a Colonial leader. Among the notable absentees among the pursuers will be Matt Kuchar (2 over), the No. 4 player in the world rankings, and Rickie Fowler (15 over), Crowne Plaza pitch man. Both missed Friday’s cut, along with past Colonial champs Rory Sabbatini, Corey Pavin, Olin Browne and Keith Clearwater.

Although one stroke off the lead, the hottest golfer in the field may be Stroud, a finalist for the 2004 Ben Hogan Award who played at Lamar University. Stroud collected eight birdies in Friday’s second round, burying 220 feet, 8 inches worth of putts. Stroud bagged six birdies from 16 feet or longer, including a 56-footer (No. 4) and a 34-footer (No. 8).

Stroud’s second-round 64 matched the lowest of the tournament, continuing a hot streak that began Thursday. The Houston resident is 10 under in his last 30 holes at Colonial after a dismal start.

“The first six holes [Thursday], I missed every green. I only hit one fairway,” said Stroud, who stood at 4 over in his opening round before correcting a swing flaw. “Those last 12 holes was my comeback. I gained a lot of confidence from them ... . I told my caddie and my wife, ‘That round was the turnaround for my year. I’m back.’ I figured out my putting. And it carried over. All I’ve got to do is get the ball in the fairway now.”

Stroud, 32, did that well enough Friday to climb into contention. But he still finds himself behind Garnett, who began Friday’s round with an eagle (No. 1), then added birdies at Nos. 8, 11 and 16.

“The eagle at the start was super nice,” said Garnett, who reached the par-5 green in two shots before dropping a 17-foot putt. “Each and every week, the rookies feel more comfortable out here. I know I have.”

Among the notable pursuers within striking distance, only Walker has yet to make a bogey through 36 holes at Colonial. The former Baylor standout, who leads the PGA Tour in victories (3) and season earnings ($4,568,475), collected two birdies and 16 pars in Friday’s second round. A Boerne resident, Walker even rallied to par the 17th hole after his tee shot struck a bird in flight, causing Walker to scramble from the right rough.

“I couldn’t see it. It got down there pretty far,” said Walker, whose ball glanced off the bird but did not knock the bird out of the air.

Garnett, for one, is eager to see how his nerves respond to his first 36-hole lead at a PGA Tour event.

“This is a ball-striker’s course. And, typically, my strength is hitting fairways and greens,” Garnett said. “I’m going to keep my routine the same. You just have to embrace the position you’re in, have fun and keep grinding.”

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