By Rick Brown
Patrick Rodgers first came to the John Deere Classic in 2012 as a college star, playing on a sponsor’s exemption.
The Stanford all-American missed the cut, but got another exemption in 2013 and opened some eyes. Including his own. Rodgers held the lead for a brief spell in the third round that year and ended up tying for 15th.
Now he’s back, as a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour. And he’s returned to the top of the leaderboard.
Rodgers, 25, who has registered seven Top 10 finishes but is looking for his first PGA Tour victory, shot a second-round 64 Friday. His 36-hole score of 129, 13-under par, gives him a two-shot lead over Bryson DeChambeau heading into the weekend. DeChambeau shot 65 Friday after closing with a front-nine 30.
Former Deere champion Zach Johnson and Charles Howell III are tied for third at 10-under. Johnson shot 67. It was the 30th time in his last 32 Deere rounds that Johnson has shot in the 60s. Howell III shot 69.
“I know I have the game and the mentality to compete,” Rodgers said. “I just have to lean on all the experience I have as a pro and amateur winning golf tournaments.”
Rodgers also hopes to lean on his experience here in 2013.
“I’ll never forget looking up at the leaderboard on the 13th green that year in the third round,” Rodgers said. “I saw my name by itself, and I had the lead for the first time in a tour event. I started freaking out. I felt like I was good enough to compete on the PGA Tour. But it’s a different thing to be doing it and see it happen. I’ve definitely come a long ways since then. But I have a ton or memories to fall back on from that year.”
Rodgers played in Johnson’s foundation charity pro-am Monday at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids. Rodgers and Johnson share the same manager, Brad Buffoni.
“He’s a terrific kid, with talent that is immense,” Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of time, not a matter of if. I hope it’s not this week. Sorry, P Rog.”
Rodgers’ putter and short game were the story of the day Friday. He needed just 26 putts. He made putts covering an astounding 146 feet 7 inches. That doesn’t include a chip-in from 50 yards right of the hole for birdie on the par-3 3rd hole.
Rodgers was bogey-free for the Deere until he made one at No. 9, the final hole of his second round. That cut his lead from three shots to two.
DeChambeau, 23, who missed the cut in his previous Deere experience as an amateur in 2015, is coming off a tie for 14th at the Greenbrier Classic last week. He has two Top 10 finishes in 40 career PGA Tour events. Friday’s 65 matched his career-low score.
“In 2015, before I won the U.S. Amateur, Mr. (Clair) Peterson was nice enough to give me an exemption here,” DeChambeau said. “I missed the cut that week, but I was able to learn a lot from the experience.”
Johnson, who finished third or better in six of seven Deere appearances between 2009 and 2015, is in position to make some noise again. Johnson’s 67 came even though he parred all three of Deere Run’s par-5s.
“The par-5s are what stick out today,” said Johnson, who missed three birdie putts of nine feet or less in his final four holes. “There a lot of positives. I feel in control.”
Howell started the round tied for the lead, and parred every hole on the front nine. But he had three back-nine birdies to stay near the top of a jammed leaderboard.
“Still hanging in there,” Howell said. “Fortunately, the guys didn’t run away too much. I’m going to need a good weekend.”
Kevin Tway, who ran off seven straight birdies in a second-round 63 that was the lowest of his PGA Tour career, shares fifth place at 9-under 133 with Chad Campbell, Chesson Hadley and J.J. Henry.
Tway was on the wrong side of the cut line at 1-under par with 12 holes to play.
“It was a so-so day,” Tway said. “And then I made kind of a long putt (23-feet 3- inches on No. 16, his seventh hole), which kind of got it going.”
Six more birdies followed. The seven straight is a high on the PGA Tour this season. Tway missed a chance to tie the tournament record of eight straight when he burned the right edge of the cup with a birdie putt of 7-feet 9-inches on No. 5.
“I was wishing it would never stop, but it did,” said Tway, who made three putts of at least 23 feet long in his birdie barrage.
Had he made the putt on No. 5, Tway would have joined Fuzzy Zoeller as the only player in the 47-year history of this event to run off eight straight. Zoeller made eight straight in the second round of the 1976 event at Oakwood Country Club in Coal Valley, Ill. The seven straight was a record at TPC Deere Run, the tournament host since 2000. Paul Stankowski, Jhonattan Vegas and Johnson had all made six straight.
Tway would have become the ninth player in PGA Tour history to make eight straight. Mark Calcavecchia holds the all-time record of nine straight, set in the second round of the 2009 RBC Canadian Open.
Tway did match his father, Bob, a former PGA Champion, who also made seven straight at the 2003 Valero Texas Open.
“I figured he probably made a lot of birdies in a row,” Tway said. “He played forever.”