ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Bud Cauley has the same good vibes at Sea Island, even if the stakes are different this time.
The McGladrey Classic is where Cauley did well enough to secure his PGA Tour card, joining an elite list of players who went from college to a full tour card without going to Q-school. Now he’s after his first win, and Cauley took a big step Thursday by overpowering the course for an 8-under 62.
It was his best score on the tour, and it gave him a share of the lead with Marco Dawson.
Winning is about all that’s left for Cauley, the 22-year-old who left Alabama after his junior season. He already has made over $1.7 million this year, and has moved up to No. 55 in the world.
“Obviously, I’ve thought about winning every tournament I’ve teed up in this year,” Cauley said. “It’s been a long year, and although I’ve played a lot this year, I haven’t won. It’s still a goal of mine, but I’m not thinking about that while I’m out there, or putting any more pressure on myself this week.
“The season is kind of wining down. It would be great to win here.”
Dawson is in a more desperate position.
The McGladrey Classic is the penultimate PGA Tour event on the schedule that counts toward the money list, and Dawson is at No. 216 with only $62,026 in 20 tournaments. The top 125 earn full cards for next year, so Dawson likely has to win to avoid a return to Q-school. His year has gone so badly that Dawson doesn’t even look at the money list.
“I’m so far away from it that the only thing I can do is just try and play well,” Dawson said.
“And when I am playing well, just to keep it going instead of kind of messing it up like I have during the year.”
Two guys on the bubble — Boo Weekley (No. 121) and Rod Pampling (No. 124) joined Greg Owen at 64. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, the tournament host, was in a group at 65 that included Sea Island neighbor Zach Johnson, David Toms and Camilo Villegas, who is No. 152 on the money list.
Jim Furyk shot 66 in his first event since the Ryder Cup.
Dawson had a chance to mess up even a great day.
He twice had to take penalty strokes after errant tee shots on his last six holes and wound up losing only one shot. He took his lone bogey on the fourth hole, and then his tee shot on the par-5 seventh hit a tree and went into the water. Dawson took his drop, played 100 yards short of the green, hit wedge to 25 feet and holed the putt for par.
Cauley didn’t have too many issues like that. He didn’t have a par putt longer than 4 feet, and the slight kid from Jacksonville, Fla., pounded one tee shot after another, setting up wedges into many of the greens. He ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine that carried him to a 29.
“There were a couple of shorter holes where if you get in the fairway, you have wedges in your hand. And I really just hit good shots, drove the ball in the fairway and put wedges in my hand,” he said. “Just hit good wedge shots and put the ball in the right spot on the green to leave myself pretty easy putts.”
For so many other players, there is nothing easy about this week.
Weekley doesn’t pay attention to details. Remember, this is the guy who once asked Paul Lawrie how he qualified for the British Open when it returned to Carnoustie — where Lawrie made history with his wild, 10-shot comeback against Jean Van de Velde. Weekley, though, could tell you exactly where he is on the money list.
He is aware that he has to play well in the last two weeks to make sure he has a full job next year, and he responded Thursday.
Trying to lighten the mood on the course, he talked endlessly with his caddie about fishing. And it helps to be playing a coastal course off the Atlanta, for Weekley has won twice at Hilton Head, just up the coast in South Carolina.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Weekley said. “I finally started making some putts, and I’ve been hitting the ball good, pretty good the last two weeks, and finally today the putts showed up, so hoping I carry it on this week.”
Pampling can speak from experience. A year ago, he missed the cut in the final event at Disney and still wound up at No. 125 to keep his card. A year later, he’s back in the same spot. For such an idyllic resort as Sea Island, there’s an awful lot of stress inside the ropes.
“It hasn’t been a lot of fun the last few years,” Pampling said. “I’ve been playing good, but I haven’t score. And it’s all down to the putting. Nothing is going in.”
He made plenty of putts on the back nine, where he shot 30. That was soothing.
The conditions never changed much during the day, and the course that usually is protected by wind was vulnerable. The lone defense was the greens, which are fast enough that even lag putts seem to run out 4 or 5 feet beyond the hole.
More than half of the 132-man field — 86 players — broke par.
Former U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee was another reminder that this week isn’t peaceful for everyone. Lee is No. 167, with time running out, so he was pleased with his start — in the round and in the tournament. He already was 5 under through seven holes with an eagle at the par-5 seventh, though he didn’t make up much ground from there. Even so, the 65 follows a strong week in California when he tied for 16th.
“It feels like I got fire on my (behind) right now,” Lee said. “Just want to maintain this because I want to play on the PGA Tour for a long, long time. Top 150 you still get into a few events, so that’s what I’m actually looking at right now. But after this round, it might turn around.”