RIDGELAND, S.C. (AP) — Chesson Hadley is off to his best start on the PGA Tour since 2016, shooting a 5-under 66 on Friday for a two-stroke lead over Dustin Johnson in the Palmetto Championship at Congaree.
Hadley was at 11-under 131 at Congaree Golf Club, his lowest total through 36 holes since the The RSM Classic in 2016.
The top-ranked Johnson, who opened his afternoon round five shots behind early starter Hadley, was tied for the lead through 17 holes.
But Johnson drove the ball left on No. 18 and into a thick, deeply rooted patch of tall grass. He took an unplayable lie, hit his third shot over the green and made a double-bogey 6 for a 68. Still, at 9-under 133, he had his best 36-hole start since winning the Travelers almost a year ago.
“I feel like I’m playing really well,” the South Carolina native said. “So got a lot of confidence in what I’m doing.”
American Tain Lee, in just his third career PGA Tour event, was third at 7 under after a 68. A group of six that included Harris English and South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen were five shots behind at 6 under.
Hadley continued his stellar play at Congaree, a fill-in host after the RBC Canadian Open was was called off for a second straight year due to COVID-19.
Hadley followed an opening 65 with seven birdies and two bogeys to top the leaderboard. Coming in, he had missed the cut in 10 of his past 12 events.
“I definitely didn’t see this coming,” he said.
Why would he with his poor stretch of play?
After falling short at the Byron Nelson last month for his fifth straight missed cut, the 33-year-old from North Carolina shut things down for a while to clear his head. “Thank goodness I had three weeks off after that just to kind of completely get that behind me and just think about the future,” he said.
These two rounds have jump-started Hadley’s waning confidence. “Obviously, we’re a long way form the winner’s circle,” Hadley said. “I’m so thankful to just feel that again, like I belong out here type of thing.”
And he’ll play the third round with someone who certainly belongs in Johnson, although the world’s No. 1-ranked player has been stunningly bad the past few months.
He’s gone without a top 10 in his past seven starts, a horrible run that included missed cuts at the Masters, where he was defending champion, and the PGA Championship in his home state.
Johnson said even he was thrown off course with his recent performances. “For me, it’s all about the misses,” he explained. “If you can keep your misses in play or on the right side of holes, it makes the game a lot easier.”
He did that to near perfection, except for that final hole.
Johnson had four birdies on a six-hole stretch of the back nine to catch Hadley for the lead. Then the bad drive at the last, which Johnson said came when the club slipped in his glove hand.
“That’s a first for me. I obviously was not expecting that,” he said.
Hadley, moved in front at 9-under with a 36-foot birdie putt on the 11th hole. He extended his edge on the 15th, landing his approach within 2 feet of the cup for another birdie. Hadley closed with a flourish after sticking his second shot within 8 feet of the cup for another birdie to finish with day’s lowest round.
Brooks Koepka, who hadn’t played since his runner-up finish at the PGA, struggled for a second straight round and missed the cut after a 73 left him at 3 over.
Wondering if Koepka will be ready for next week’s U.S. Open? There’s this: He missed the cut at the Byron Nelson, then finished second a week later at the PGA Championship.
Koepka was glad for the reps this week and wanted to keep playing. “I don’t know, I just have a harder time focusing in regular PGA Tour events than I do majors,” he said. “Majors, I know locked in from the moment I hit the first tee shot.”
Lee had to Monday qualify into all three of his PGA Tour starts. Now, he’s four shots off the lead. “Yeah, that’s pretty crazy. That’s wild,” he said.
First-round leader Wes Roach followed his opening 64 with a 77 to fall 10 shots behind Hadley.
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