HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Florida—John Coultas didn’t hit his chip on the opening hole at the Mackenzie Tour Qualifying Tournament exactly how he wanted, the ball landing short of where he was aiming. But his ball still released and rolled straight into the hole for an eagle-3 at Mission Inn Resort’s El Campeon Course. Coultas followed that with a birdie on the par-3 second, and he was off and running. He used that quick start to fire a 6-under 66—tying him for the low round of the tournament—and he will take a two-shot lead into the final round Friday. Second-round leader Bennett Wisner, at 8-under, is two strokes back, while China’s Charles Wang used a birdie-birdie-birdie finish to salvage his round, shooting a 70 to sit alone in third. He’s at 6-under and four back of Coultas.
The tournament winner will be fully exempt for the entire 2019 Mackenzie Tour season, which would shape up nicely for Coultas, who is already fully exempt for the first half of the PGA TOUR Latinoamerica season after finishing seventh at that Tour’s qualifier, also at El Campeon, in January.
“Yeah, starting with an eagle chip-in and birdie definitely calms the nerves a little bit,” Coultas said of the start to his round. “You know you have a few shots to give, especially on those tougher holes on that front nine.”
Coultas’ only setback all round came at No. 4 when he bogeyed the par-4. But birdies on Nos. 7, 10, 14 and 16 kept him in the lead once he wrested it from Wisner on the second hole.
Coultas led by three shots with two holes to play, and he could have extended his lead. But he missed makeable birdie putts on Nos. 17 and 18, with Wisner making his 10-footer for birdie on No. 18 to narrow Coultas’ lead to with 18 holes to play.
Did you know John Coultas won the 2016 Jack Nicklaus Award given annually to Players of the Year at various college division levels. Coultas won the award for Division II as a sophomore, representing Florida Southern University, while Arizona State’s Jon Rahm was the Division I recipient, Addison Lambeth (Division III, Huntingdon) Peter French (NAIA, Johnson & Wales) and Kerry Sweeney (NJCAA, Eastern Florida State) the other recipients.
In Thursday’s third round, 31 players turned in under-par scores compared to 18 in the tournament’s first two rounds.
Drew McCullough has had a wildly inconsistent first 54 holes, but his 3-under 69 has left him in position to earn conditional 2019 status and maybe make a run at full status for the season’s first six events should he turn in a low number Friday. McCullough went under par Thursday a day after shooting a second-round 79. He opened with a 2-under 70. He is tied for 22nd.
Amateur Thomas Walsh has gotten progressively better each day this week. After starting the tournament with a 4-over 76, he recovered with a 73 in the second round followed by a 68 Thursday. He is tied for 18th. The senior at the University of Virginia is currently the tournament’s fifth-lowest amateur, behind Stanton Schorr (fourth), Travis Trace (tied for seventh), Philip Knowles (tied for 14th) and Lukas Euler (tied for 16th).
John Coultas’ caddie this week is his mother, Lisa. This is the third time she has caddied for her son.
Joining John Coultas with a 66—the low round of the day and tournament—is amateur Stanton Schorr, who currently attends Mercer University. All of Schorr’s birdies came on odd-numbered holes Thursday (1, 3, 5, 11, 13, 15 and 17). His lone bogey was at No. 7.
On the 17th hole, Bennett Wisner hit a solid drive, but on his lay up on the par-5, his shot clipped a tree branch but advanced forward to the left side of the fairway. From about 110 yards, his third-shot approach again nicked a branch but settled on the green, 12 feet above the hole. He missed the slippery downhill birdie putt but made the five-foot comebacker for par. “You can’t hit the trees twice and expect to come away with a 4,” Wisner said.
China’s Charles Wang had a nice finish to his third round, the back nine the place where he made up all his strokes. After taking a penalty shot on No. 1 that resulted in a bogey on the par-5, he played par golf until a double bogey-5 at the par-3 eighth. The native of Beijing who makes his home in Bradenton, Fla., made the turn in 3-over. Wang then eagled No. 10 before reeling off three consecutive birdies to finish his round, including a 1-foot tap-in on No. 18. Wang is alone in third, four shots back.
John Coultas finally broke his streak of rounds between 69 and 71 at El Campeon with his third-round 66. In his six previous rounds on the course this year (four for the PGA TOUR Latinoamerica Qualifying Tournament in January and two this week), his scores have been 71-69-70-71-70-70.
The low Canadians through 54 holes are Jimmy Jones and Hugo Bernard. Bernard shot his second under-par round of the week Thursday and his lowest score, with his 3-under 69. Jones turned in his second consecutive 71 to finish at 2-under overall. Bernard and Jones are tied with American Trey Shirley for 10th.
The par-4 third hole played as the most-difficult hole in the third round, a stroke average of 4.626. There were only three birdies there in the third round. The easiest hole was the par-5 14th, the hole yielding three eagles and 62 birdies. Against only seven bogeys and one triple bogey.
“That first hole is a great risk-reward hole. It’s a tough, tight tee shot. You can make a 6 or 7 or a 3 pretty quickly. It definitely tests your nerves right away.” –John Coultas
“The greens looked a little baked-out, a little crusty. It kind of came out with not as much spin as I was expecting out of the rough, and it just trickled up on a good line all the way and trickled in. It was a nice start.” –John Coultas on his chip-in eagle on No. 1
“It definitely helps having a cushion. If I go out and play a solid round Friday, I’ll at least have the first six events to play on this Tour. Knowing I have (PGA TOUR) Latinoamerica status has also made this week a lot easier.” –John Coultas
“She’s been great on the bag for me this week, and she’s watched so much golf watching me. I’d be bored, but she loves it.” –John Coultas on having his mother, Lisa, as his caddie
“I had the ball-striking going again. If I could get the putter a little warmer, I’d be taking it deeper than I am.” –Bennett Wisner
“The first round, I played really well but ended up dropping three shots on the last three holes, for a 72. I felt like I played really well that day. The second round was a struggle, and today just felt a lot easier.” –Stanton Schorr
“I was a lot more deliberate with the lines I was taking and the club I wanted to hit. I focused on the middle of the greens and got a couple tap-ins and a couple other putts fall.” –Stanton Schorr
“I never felt like I was struggling getting it going. I felt like I had it going. I was just trying to make putts the best I could. It was nice to finally make one drop on the last.” –Bennett Wisner
“I’m excited. I just keep telling myself I can do this. It’s a little more comforting when I keep telling myself that and each day I get better. I’m mostly just excited and having a lot of fun playing right now.” –Bennett Wisner
“I’ve just been leaving myself three-footers that are downhill sidewinders. It’s a lot easier putting straight up the hill than going down the hill.” – Bennett Wisner
How the Tournament Works
After four withdrawals and two disqualifications, 114 players remain in the field with one round remaining. Below is a breakdown of the status available this week—the same at each of the six Qualifying Tournaments: