The picture is a little clearer at RACV Royal Pines after two rounds, with Marc Leishman and Adam Bland leading the Australian PGA Championship at 12-under-par.
Just two back is Bland’s fellow lefty Greg Chalmers, who turned in one of the best rounds of the afternoon players. He fired a six-under 66, which could have been lower still had a few more putts dropped for the man known as ‘Snake’.
While tournament organisers and fans will be delighted to see the Greg Norman Medallist Leishman at the top of the leaderboard, they will be less than pleased that Adam Scott will be having the weekend off.
The Queenslander never got going on Friday at the Graham Marsh-designed layout but filled the fans with hope as he made his way in with birdies at the 15th and 17th holes, only to add a bogey at the 16th. Eventually signing for a two-over round of 74, two shy of the halfway cut.
“It's disappointing to miss the cut no matter what,” Scott said when summing up his week. “That obviously wasn't the plan of attack this week, but if you don't play well, that can happen. I was on the back foot, momentum's a big thing, and at the moment I make an error at the wrong time and bogey the 12th hole from over the back of the green. I shouldn't have hit the ball over the back of the green, but that's where that little bit of control with the ball striking hurts me.”
Scott looked rusty during the second round as he had done at times on Thursday. The 37-year-old making errors with his long game, which put more pressure on his short game and newly reinserted long putter.
“I just didn't hit the ball very well,” Scott said. “Well, today I didn't hit the ball very well, especially off the tee. Spent most of the time in the trees and it was hard to play from there. I think the course seemed to play long so that was costly not to drive it well this week.”
The missed cut marks only the third time the 2013 Masters winner will not play the weekend at the PGA and ended what has been a mediocre year for the former World No.1, who will now enjoy some time off with his growing family before recommitting to his game for the 2018 PGA Tour season.
“Just taking a break and switching off a little bit,”: he said of his upcoming plans. “I found it difficult switching on and switching off for the last few months. It's been hard not to get frustrated by just playing a bit average for the last three months. I look forward to switching it right off and then being able to start up properly in the new year and get back into the old routines and hopefully that has a really positive effect on my golf game.”
Like Scott, Leishman will be looking forward to a break over Christmas with his young family but has two more rounds of golf to play at Royal Pines first, which could see the Victorian add his first piece of major Australian silverware to his ever-growing trophy collection.
“Playing in front of friends and family, that's always nice no matter where it is. Here there seems to be more friends and family because it's a bit closer to home. I think it would be huge,” Leishman said when asked what it would mean to take the Joe Kirkwood Cup home to Virginia Beach.
“I went and watched the Australian PGA for the first time when it was at Victoria. You go there and of course one day you hope you're going to play in it and possibly win it. But yeah, if it was to happen, it would be pretty huge,” he added.
Leishman was out early Friday off the 10th tee and made two birdies to open his account, rewarding his positive and aggressive mindset, which also saw him make an unlikely bogey at the par-5 12th after finding the water with his second shot.
“245 meters, a little bit of wind into me. Hit driver for my second shot,” Leishmann said of one of his only blemishes in the second round. “Just aimed a little left and tried to hit it up towards the left edge of the green knowing that from there it's a pretty easy bunker shot or chip and just hit a bad shot.”
The Victorian got the dropped shot back almost instantly at the par-3 14th before a second eagle in as many days at the par-5 15th identified him as well and truly the man to watch. Another bogey at the difficult 18th saw the 34-year-old turn in four-under before three more birdies in the first five holes of the front side at Royal Pines took the three time PGA Tour winner get to 12-under par and a second round 65, the low score of the day.
“I felt really good on the range and felt good yesterday as well,” Leishman said. “But I was striking the ball well and thought I would be pretty aggressive all day, especially after birdieing the first couple holes. When you're on a run like that and playing well, you sort of can afford to be aggressive. If you make a few mistakes, you feel like you can make some birdies.”
Leishman’s co-leader Bland again went about his round in comparative anonymity, recording matching 33s on both sides of the course with his only error coming at the par-4 7th hole, his 16th of the day, which came amid a hot streak of three birdies in four holes.
“It's been a good day. It was worth getting up at 4:15 this morning,” Bland joked after his round.
“It's always great to get off to a flying start, but if you can't back it up in the second round or at least be thereabouts, you're kind of just chasing your tail for the rest of the week. So, it was really important to get off to a good start this morning and I seemed to do that, so it was great.”
Whereas Leishman is now one of the big name Australian players seen week in week out on the PGA Tour, Bland plies his trade on the Japanese Tour where external coverage is almost non-existent.
“It's really different because you can catch trains to golf courses each morning if you like, if it works out that it's close by,” the South Australian said of life in Japan.
“All the Aussies stick together so it's not too bad. We eat dinner with the same guys every night so that can obviously get a little bit boring as well. But it's a great lifestyle. I love it because it allows me to have 30 weeks at home”, he said echoing the feelings of marquee players Scott and Leishman about balancing golf and life.
It appeared as the wind started to blow a little stronger in the afternoon and the greens began to firm up that Bland and Leishman would not only lead but by a good margin before veteran and two-time Australian PGA Champion Chalmers got on a run.
The left hander’s round bared a great similarity to that of Bland a day earlier, playing his best golf in front of little to no crowd before making mostly pars on the way in, with his only bogey on the day coming at the 2nd hole.
“I turned in 3 under and birdied some of the holes you probably should birdie, there's some opportunities there on the front nine, and then played pretty solid golf on the back nine,” Chalmers said. “My short game saved me a few times. I've been working really hard on my chipping and putting and I did a lot of that very well today. So really pleased with the turnaround in my game over this week.”
Chalmers good form is certainly a turnaround having missed 20 cuts in 2017. But the one-time PGA Tour winner has good memories of Royal Pines and the Gold Coast.
“I mean, I've won this event twice and once here, so it's very relaxing here and that helps me, so I'm really enjoying myself this week,” he said.
While Chalmers was enjoying himself in the afternoon, the third marquee player, Sergio Garcia, was struggling a few groups ahead alongside Scott and was visibly tired and frustrated with his game during the round. The Spaniard still managed five birdies but two bogeys and a double meant he signed for one-under round to sit at six-under for the tournament, six shots in arrears of Leishman and Bland.
“It wasn't my best day out there today,” Garcia said after the round. “I hit a couple really nice putts but probably a little bit tired I think physically and mentally. Because of that, obviously, my golf game wasn't as sharp as I would like it to be.
“It depends on tomorrow, if we have a really good day tomorrow. If not, if we don't have a great day tomorrow, then it's going to be tough because those guys are playing well and they're not going to back up much.”
Leishman will now enter the weekend as the clear favourite to win the tournament. However, he will need to limit the bogeys that have cost him the lead on his own after two rounds with the steady Bland playing alongside him and a host of players just behind including Chalmers, Cameron Smith, Jordan Zunic and defending champion Harold Varner III.
Varner recorded a six-under round of 66 playing alongside the man from Warrnambool to sit at seven-under and perhaps best expressed the feelings of the entire field about trying to challenge ‘Leish’.
“I'm going to need some help, though, because if he keeps playing like that, we're in trouble,” Varner said. “I think everyone in this field is in trouble.”