By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS —
Johnson Wagner hopes one trend will continue today, and another will be broken.
The leader by two strokes at the Greenbrier Classic has won both of his PGA Tour starts after leading going into the final round, in Houston in 2008 and in Mayakoba in Mexico in 2011.
On the other hand, the Greenbrier Classic leader going into the final round has never won the event in its three-year history. The past two years have required playoffs to determine a champion at the Old White TPC Course.
Buoyed by a cheering section that includes many fellow Virginia Tech alumni, Wagner is feeling positive.
“I'm taking a lot of confidence out of some of the shots I hit, especially on the back nine knowing I had the lead,” he said.
“The last couple of weeks I've just been trying to be positive and remember that I've won three times out here. It was my goal when I was a kid just to play out here. Now I'm a three-time winner and I have nothing to lose.”
Wagner is at 14-under par 196, two shots ahead of Jimmy Walker, who matched him with a 6-under 64 on Saturday. Swedish native Jonas Blixt is alone in third, 10-under par.
Wagner took sole possession of the lead early and presented a challenge to the rest of the field by making four birdies, while recording one bogey, on the front nine.
“I went out and had a great day,” he said. “I drove the ball really nicely, felt really comfortable all day. A little nervous, early, but I settled down. I hit a couple of birdies early, hit a lot of good golf shots today.”
“Wednesday I was just telling my caddie, all I want to do this week is make a bunch of birdies. I know I can make a bunch. … My goal starting (Saturday) was just make as many birdies as I can.”
On his very first hole, “I hit the fairway for the first time this week,” he said. “I honestly don't really like birdieing the first hold very often. I usually call it the first-hole-birdie blues. But I was adamant after I made that putt, to not fall into that.”
He birdied holes 3 and 5, and recorded a five on the par-4 seventh for his sole bogey. He got it back with a birdie putt on hole No. 9.
“I was very excited that that putt went in,” he said. “I was in kind of a nasty divot in the fairway. I always love making birdies out of a divot. It's kind of a little challenge I have with myself, not to get upset that the ball went into a divot.”
“I hit a really nice shot on 8, and left it short. I was kind of disappointed that I didn't bounce back immediately with a birdie, but it was nice to recover from that one bogey going into the back nine.”
The momentum started to build with birdies on holes 10 and 12, but those were not his favorites of the day.
Wagner said, “The par putt on 13 really felt like an eagle when it went in. … I left it 20, 25 feet short and just nailed it, up the hill. When I'm playing really well, I don't like to give up on pars, so I just said 'never give up on a par' and I made it.”
“The shot that I hit into 15 may have been the best shot I've ever hit,” he said. “It was sky-high, right at the flag.”
He said those strokes, on holes that he parred, were “shots that I didn't have two weeks ago, that give me a lot of confidence.”
He captured his last birdie on the final hole of the day. His tee shot on the par-3 18th carried true, plopping down about 11 feet from the hole, giving him an almost flat putt attempt. After his swing, he waited as the ball reached the right edge of the cup and fell in. His fist pump said it all.
Second-round leader Matt Every had exactly the opposite kind of start to his day with two bogeys. He ended with a 74 and is now at 5-under for the tournament, tied for 27th.
The Old White still has some tricks up its sleeve. Many golfers saw their birdies disappear on Saturday, as balls stopped mere inches from the cup. Showers or thundershowers are estimated as a 60-percent possibility for today's final round at the historic golf grounds.
Wagner plans to keep hunting those birdies, starting with his tee time set for 2 p.m.
“This is the kind of golf course that if you play tentative at all, you're going to miss fairways,” he said, “and when you miss fairways out here you get some awkward angles on some of these tough [PGA] Tour pins, especially on Sunday.”
“So I think my main key for tomorrow is going to be aggressive off the tee and hit as many fairways as I can, which will set up a lot of birdie opportunities.”
“I just have a good feeling here, with the way I'm swinging right now. I know there will be a lot of nerves tomorrow, but I've got a really clear picture of what I'm trying to do on every swing.”
"This golf course, when it's firm and fast, may be one of my favorite places we play on tour."
— Contact Tom Bone at firstname.lastname@example.org