When the Web.com Tour Championship was played at the TPC Sawgrass Dye’s Valley for the first three years of the Web.com Finals, the lowest winning score over 72 holes was 14-under. Through 36 holes on Friday at Atlantic Beach, two players have already exceeded that, leader Sam Saunders (who followed his opening-round 59 with a 66) at 17-under and Julian Etulain (63) at 15-under.
And anyone who matched Chesson Hadley’s winning 10-under score in the 2013 Web.com Tour Championship at the Valley was among a large group tied for 17th at Atlantic Beach.
But even those players who are in the thick of it said a weather forecast that calls for a Northeaster to bring rain and higher wind to the area will bring big changes.
“Just wait,” said Roberto Castro, who birdied three of his last four holes for a 64 to finish tied for third at 13-under. “It’s just the weather. It’s been perfect weather. When it gets windy this weekend, it will be totally different.”
“I told myself that I would have to get to 20-under to get the job done … maybe I’ll have to re-evaluate that,” said Jonathan Byrd, who shot 65 to join Castro and Bronson Burgoon (63) at 13-under. “But with more wind, maybe it will be harder.”
And Saunders, who was tied for the Web.com Tour 36-hole scoring record of 19-under before a double bogey at the par-5 18th hole, said a pair of even-par 71s on the weekend would leaving anyone in contention in good shape — especially those who need high finishes to work their way into the top-25 on Web.com Finals money list and earn their PGA Tour cards for the 2017-18 season.
“I’m really pleased that I could put myself up on top because pars are going to be good this weekend,” said Saunders, who set the 36-hole Tour Championship scoring record. “You could shoot even par and you may move forward. No way you can hit all these greens when it’s blowing 20-to-30 miles per hour.”
The scoring at Atlantic Beach hasn’t been the lowest this season on the Web.com Tour — but it’s close. The 5-under cut is tied for the second-lowest and the 68.569 scoring average is second-lowest after the Utah Championship (68.561).
But shouldn’t this be a tougher test in the season-ending event?
David Hearn, who had a 64 on Friday that only got him into a tie for 30th, said it’s a fairness issue, regardless of how easy or how hard a course is.
“This is a contest, and it doesn’t matter what the score is at the end, as long as it’s a fair contest,” he said. “The course is set up fair for everyone.”
Castro, who is among the players tied for the course record at the Stadium Course for The Players at 63, said the competition is so good even on the Web.com Tour that rules officials would only go over the top of they tried to combat perfect weather and no wind with difficult set ups.
“To make par a good score with as good as the players are now, they would have to do things that are tricked up and don’t reward the best players,” he said.
Andrew Loupe, who closed a round of 66 with an eagle at No. 18 to get to 10-under, said the course “is built on wind.”
“This weekend will be so different … you’re going to see what 20- or 30-mph will be like,” he said.
Standing in defense of the course and the set-up are Web.com Tour president Dan Glod and architect Erik Larsen.
“I don’t think the tournament’s over yet,” Glod said. “It’s too early to call it easy. Sam has played exceptional golf. So have a lot of other guys. They are very, very good but it will be interesting to see what the final scores will be.”
Larsen said Atlantic Beach will toughen up with some wind more than other courses — mainly because unlike the Valley, it’s closer to the ocean and there are few trees to break the wind.
“This course grows teeth in the wind more than most,” he said. “Any course is harder in the wind but this one will really punish off-track shots. It will be Jekyll and Hyde. [Saturday] will be different.”
And the low scores in the first two rounds aren’t chasing the Web.com Tour away. The 2018 Tour Championship has already been scheduled for Atlantic Beach and Glod said the Tour and the club have reached an agreement in principle for a longer-term deal.
“This is a great home for this tournament,” he said. “The environment and the atmosphere is great and the club and the community have really embraced it. We couldn’t ask for better partners. On all points, we like it.”