BROUSSARD – Casey Wittenberg took advantage of the par-five holes at Le Triomphe Golf Club five years ago, when he set a Chitimacha Louisiana Open scoring record that no player has approached since.
On Friday, he did the exact same thing, and shot to the top of the leaderboard at the halfway point of the $550,000 Web.com Tour event.
Wittenberg played the four par-fives in five-under-par Friday, including an eagle at the 12th, on the way to taming swirling winds and carding a seven-under-par 64. That and his opening-round 65 has him at 13-under 129 through two rounds – three strokes better than when he fired a 24-under 260 five years ago when he won the title by a whopping eight strokes for his first Web.com Tour victory.
“I feel comfortable down here,” said the Memphis, Tenn., native who was the Tour’s leading money winner in that 2012 season. “With my dad playing at LSU and coming to Baton Rouge a lot growing up, it’s a little like a second home in a weird way. I’m staying with some great people, and it makes for a fun, relaxing week.”
With his father Jimmy, a two-time All-SEC selection for the Tigers in 1970-71, in the gallery, Wittenberg looked comfortable all day Friday. His 64 equaled the best round of the day out of the 144-player field, and he carries a three-stroke edge over Tour rookie Aaron Wise’s 10-under 132 score going into Saturday’s third round.
Two other players, Kent Bulle and Monday qualifier Jordan Niebrugge, are one more stroke back at 133, four players are at eight-under and a six-player group including long-time PGA Tour veteran Robert Allenby are one more back at seven-under 135.
One of those at 135 was first-round leader Nate Lashley, who fired a nine-under 62 on Thursday but skied to a two-over 73 in the gusty conditions. The 7,061-yard par-71 Le Triomphe layout played more than two strokes harder than Tuesday’s first round, thanks mostly to winds that regularly hit 30 miles per hour.
For Wittenberg, though, the north winds were a welcome sight.
“The course plays a little easier for me in a north wind, because I can reach all the par-fives too, just like the longer hitters,” said Wittenberg, who spent 2013 on the PGA Tour after his standout 2012 Web.com Tour season. “Today, I was able to hit some decent wind shots in there and make some putts.”
Wise, a product of Lake Elsinore, Calif., had a 67 after his opening 65, and was happy with that score even though it included three straight bogeys on the 14th, 15th and 16th holes after he started his round on No. 10.
“I’ll take 67 out there today,” said Wise, who turned pro last summer after leading Oregon to the NCAA title in his final college season. “That’s a great score today. It was playing really, really hard. It was hard to get settled out there with the wind making it play super tough. It made it hard to get comfortable on every shot.”
The cut line was at two-under par, with 70 players making the cut for the final round that begins at 7:59 a.m., weather permitting since there are forecasts for thunderstorms overnight and during the day Saturday. The final round is set for Sunday with players chasing a $99,000 first prize.
That cut line provided the biggest drama of the day for Acadiana golf fans, with Lafayette’s Michael Smith charging back after an opening four-under 75 Thursday. The former UL standout, playing in his ninth Open and playing on a sponsor exemption, had seven birdies in his Friday round including a run of three straight on the 12th, 13th and 14th holes.
His 25-foot birdie putt on the par-three 16th put him at the two-under cut line and he parred the 17th, but his drive on the 18th hole found the water on the left side. After the penalty stroke, he hit his third shot from behind a tree to 30 feet and slid a par putt by the hole to finish at five-under 66, one stroke from making the cut to the weekend.
“I hit a lot of good shots, a lot of good putts,” said Smith, “It was a tough day, really windy from the time we teed off until the end. To birdie 13 and 14, especially today, good grief. The wind brings in the water on 18, and you have to get it on just the right line. I hit it about 10 yards too far left.”
Bulle, who birdied his final three holes Thursday in an eight-under 63 round, was at 10-under before back-to-back bogeys on the second and third holes after starting at No. 10. He also three-putt bogeyed his No. 9 finishing hole to drop out of a tie for second with Wise.
John Chin, who finished eighth at the Tour’s Club Colombia Championship earlier this year, matched Wittenberg’s low round of the day with a seven-under 64 that included seven birdies on his first 11 holes.
Wittenberg fell back on his Oklahoma State collegiate background when the winds escalated right around his 12:55 p.m. tee time.
“You have to be a little creative,” he said, “and try to hit a few more golf shots than maybe standard golf. Playing at Oklahoma State obviously helps me a little bit when it really starts getting windy. It was a lot harder today to get it close than it was yesterday, but I’ve been fortunate to keep it in front of me this week and not make many mistakes.”
Wittenberg and Niebrugge are both OSU products, and those two will be in the final two groups for Saturday’s third round. Niebrugge won the 2013 Amateur Public Links Championship and won the silver medal as low amateur in the 2015 British Open.
But Niebrugge, who opened with a 66 Thursday before his six-birdie, two-bogey 67 on Friday, has no Tour status and only got into the Louisiana Open field by shooting a Monday-qualifying 64 at Oak Wing.
“He’s a lot younger, but I know he’s a great player,” Wittenberg said, “and from Oklahoma State he’s used to playing in the wind, too. That would be cool if both of us could play well on the weekend.”
(Scores available at www.pgatour.com or on the Associated Press wire)
TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE (events at Le Triomphe unless otherwise indicated)
Saturday, March 25 Championship Third Round, 8 a.m.
Sunday, March 26 Championship Final Round, time 8 a.m.
Trophy and check presentations, 18th green following final round