Leishman leads in BMW's birdieville

Writing from Lake Forest, Illinois

Friday, September 15, 2017

Marc Leishman, with 18 birdies in 36 holes, leading the BMW Championship by three strokes at 16-under 126 at the halfway mark, says of Conway Farms Golf Club, “I don’t think it’s a pushover.”

Perhaps the affable Aussie is just being coy. Or polite.

Conway Farms is a pushover. It was in 2013, when Jim Furyk scored a course-record 59 and red numbers permeated the scoreboard. It was in 2015, when Jason Day opened with a 61, finished on top at 22-under-par 262, and 58 players finished under par.

It is again this time, with Leishman racing ahead of fellow speedsters Day and Rickie Fowler, who share second place at 13-under 129. The field average for two rounds: 68.964, more than two strokes under par.

The PGA Tour’s old slogan, “These Guys Are Good,” certainly applies to this field of elite playoff contenders. But “This Course Is Soft” also works. With tees moved up on several holes, Conway was only 6,916 yards long on Friday.

In the era of Trackman, titanium and multi-piece balls, that might as well be the distance of a par-3 course. The 15th hole, a par-4 with water on the left, was arranged to be a drivable hole on Friday, 275 yards. Everyone in the field went for the green, collecting 39 birdies and an eagle – Fowler bagged it – and the hole averaged 3.478 strokes.

That setup was the exception, but long irons into greens are the exception, except on par 5s. Then, as in the dogleg-left eighth hole, 583 yards for the second round, players are tempted more often than not. Forty of the 69 players went for it in two, and seven hit the green. Only one of the 79 players three-putter, and the hole played a half-stroke (4.507) under par.

Entertaining, it is. The gallery of approximately 22,000 was whooping it up much of the time, no more so than at 1:55 p.m., when Day aced the 188-yard 17th with an into-the-wind 7-iron. BMW donated $100,000 for the Evans Scholars Foundation, and Day – sponsored by Lexus – donated back the car he won for additional scholarship money.

A challenging test of golf worthy of the old Western Open – this is No. 114 dating back to 1899 – or the penultimate playoff battle of the season? Maybe not.

Count Leishman in favor, as someone who followed up Thursday’s 62 with a 7-under 64 should be.

“I think it’s a good course in the respect if you’re hitting really good golf shots and making putts you can go really low, but if you’re off a little bit and playing from the rough, spraying it a little bit, there’s numbers to be had,” Leishman said.

“I think it punishes bad shots and if you’re hitting it good there’s a lot of opportunities to make birdies and eagles.”

Leishman added eight birdies to his original 10. Day scored five birdies, but two eagles – one on the par-5 14th to go with the ace – really catapulted him. Leishman led at daybreak, trailed Day by three strokes when the fellow Australian finished his 6-under 65. Leishman, whose tee time was about three hours later, then raced back by to move up by three himself. Saturday at 12:50 p.m., they’ll play together in the final group.

“Hopefully we can both play well and make a lot of birdies and drag each other along,” Leishman said.

Day’s in form after a time of less-than-scintillating golf. He, for one, saw it coming.

“It has been a while since I’ve been in this position,” Day admitted. “I’m actually heading in the right direction.”

Getting back to his form of 2015, when he moved into the No. 1 ranking with wins in the PGA and BMW, is another thing.

“I don’t even know if I’ll ever get back there,” Day said. “It’s just slowly building. If I can feel like the wins come easy like it was back then, that’s the main goal. Make it feel like ... you’re not really thinking about it.”

Little has come easy for Fowler, who will play with Patrick Cantlay (10-under 132 after a  6-under 65) in the next-to-last group. He still chases a major title, but he tied for fourth at Conway two years ago. Now, after a six-birdie run Thursday and a 64 added to an opening 65, and dominating the back nine, where he’s 11-under, he’s positioned himself smartly.

“It could have been a really low one,” Fowler said. “I didn’t make anything on the front nine.”

Around Conway Farms

Defending champion Dustin Johnson stumbled to a 1-over 72 and earned a 7:52 a.m. tee time. ... Louis Oosthuizen goes off as a single at 7:30 a.m. ... Feature pairings: Jason Dufner and Rory McIlroy (8:55 a.m.), Ian Poulter and Bryson DeChambeau (9:40 a.m.), Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey (10:40 a.m.), and Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth (11:30 a.m.). ... The sneaky good round of the day was Francesco Molinari’s 6-under 65 for 9-under 133, earning him a 12:30 p.m. pairing with Stewart Cink. ... Charles Howell III had the day’s high round, a 5-over 76. Of the 138 rounds so far, only 25 are over par. Nobody in the last 14 twosomes on Saturday’s tee sheet has recorded a round higher than par 71. ... Jason Day’s ace aside, Mickelson might have authored the shot of the day, a crisp wedge off an asphalt cart path on the ninth hole to set up a par 4 after hooking his tee shot some 30 yards off line and against a tent. Line-of-sight relief was in the middle of the path, and after placing his ball there, he decided to play it in Mickelsonian fashion, hitting the green and two-putting from 22 feet. ... Adding in Thursday’s estimated crowd of about 20,000, some 42,000 have attended the two tournament days, with larger galleries expected on the weekend.

Tim Cronin

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