KERRVILLE – A sharp iron game and new putter have made all the difference for Addison’s Chris Wheeler, who leads the 2017 Texas Mid-Amateur Championship by one shot at 5-under 139 with one round to play.
Wheeler, who finished tied for second at the 2016 Texas Mid-Amateur, hit the majority of the greens in regulation at Comanche Trace. He also made three crucial birdie putts in his closing stretch to shoot a 2-under 70 on Saturday afternoon in blustery conditions. He recently switched to a center-shafted Ping putter on the recommendation from a friend and credits it in large part for his stellar play.
(For complete scores, click here.)
“The new putter has been a big difference-maker,” Wheeler said, who birdied his 12th, 13th and final hole to take momentum into Sunday’s final round. “Normally, that’s kind of where I struggle. But this week putting has been a strong part of my game. My buddy back home has been trying to get me to switch to a center-shafted putter, and I finally gave in. It’s funny because he’s not a good golfer.”
Another friend of Wheeler’s, who definitely is a good golfer, is San Antonio native Colby Harwell. He sits just one shot behind Wheeler in second place at 4-under 140. Harwell, who shared runner-up honors with Wheeler at Spanish Oaks in last year, went out in the first group Saturday morning and lit up his home course with a sterling 5-under 67.
Lewisville’s Brad Gibson and Jonathan Alden of Austin are tied for third place at 2-under 142. Gibson came in with an even-par 72 on Saturday; Alden shot a 1-over 73. They’re three shots back of Wheeler.
Five players share fifth place at 1-under 143, including three competitors who are also vying for the Mid-Master Division title for players aged 40 and older. John Stollenwerck of Dallas, Randy Lance from Spring and Plano’s Rick Sulzer are tied atop the Mid-Master leaderboard as well as in fifth overall. Houston’s Justin Kaplan and Josh Loungo of Round Rock also are tied for fifth place.  
Lurking five shots back is the defending champion, Joshua Irving from Dallas. He shot a 2-under 70 on Saturday and sits tied for 10th place at even-par 144.
This is the sixth time Comanche Trace has played host to a TGA major championship. The state’s top 132 mid-amateurs (ages 25 and older) are playing the Hills Course-Creeks Course routing. The expansive 27-hole facility rests nestled in a valley among the foothills of the Hill Country. Nineteen-time PGA Tour winner Tom Kite, along with Roy Bechtol and Randy Russell, designed the Hills Course and Valley Course in 2000. Jay and Carter Morrish added the more difficult Creeks Course in 2008.
A balanced mix of shorter and longer holes, varied elevations and dense heather grass creeping on the edges of the rough all blend to make Comanche Trace a dramatic, yet taxing, examination. As if playing in the year’s second-to-last statewide championship wasn’t demanding enough, players for the second straight day had to battle through high winds that included 25-mph gusts.
Fifty-four players advanced past the 36-hole cut at 7-over 151 or better.
Saturday’s scoring average was 75.62, which was an improvement over the first round’s average of 77.52. Through two rounds, the 570-yard 13th hole has proved to be the most difficult. The winding par 5 has a 5.53 stroke average and has yielded 35 birdies, one eagle and 48 double-bogeys or worse. Only one hole has played under par on average; the 533-yard, par-5 fourth hole owns a 4.92 stroke average through 36 holes.
Sulzer, one of the Mid-Master leaders, explained why a conservative strategy has worked out well for him so far.
“This course is so hard, double bogeys can sneak up on you quickly,” said Sulzer, who tied with Wheeler and Harwell for runner-up honors at the 2016 Texas Mid-Amateur. “I was just trying to keep it around even par. If you can shoot 1- or 2-under each day, you’ll have a chance to win.”
Austin's Greg Smith is two shots back in the Mid-Master Division. His 1-over 73 on Saturday got him to even-par 144. He said he was thrilled at the addition of the Mid-Master Division.
“I think it’s great. It’s definitely needed,” he said. “There is a large population of us (40 and older) that are in that category. It’s very nice to have something to compete for, not only the championship, but to have a chance to win this division.”
The final round of the 2017 Texas Mid-Amateur starts Sunday at 8 a.m. For more information, including complete results, click here.