Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

St. Simons Says Smile; Kuchar, Johnson atop Players Leaderboard Filled with Coastal Georgia Neighbors

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

St. Simons Says Smile; Kuchar, Johnson atop Players Leaderboard Filled with Coastal Georgia Neighbors

Article excerpt

Byline: Garry Smits

American players are making a comeback through 36 holes of The Players Championship - and it's a South Georgia seaside resort town at the forefront of the charge.

Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson, part of a large contingent of PGA Tour players who are calling St. Simons Island home, surged into a share of The Players lead Friday at the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course, along with South Korean native but longtime U.S. resident Kevin Na at 8-under-par 136.

Kuchar (68) and Na (69) made rare moves from afternoon groups. Johnson (66), playing in the morning, birdied three of his first four holes and then went on a tear of five birdies in seven holes on the back nine. He would have had the outright lead had he not bogeyed the 18.

"I never gave the golf course much," Johnson said. "In other words, I kept it where you need to keep it."

Kuchar played his last 13 holes bogey-free, with three birdies. Na birdied his first three holes on the back nine, gave two shots back with a pair of bogeys, then drained a 7-foot birdie putt at No. 17 to make it a three-way tie.

Close behind are two more Americans, also St. Simons Island residents: PGA Tour rookie Harris English (67), who leads all first-time Players entrants at 7 under, and Jonathan Byrd (70), who is 6 under with another transplanted South Korean, Charlie Wi (67).

The play of the St. Simons contingent, plus Na, marks the first time since 2002 that the top three players on the 36-hole leaderboard are either U.S. natives or were raised in America. International players have won the last four tournaments, with Phil Mickelson the last American winner in 2007.

"I have some experience so I feel I can do it if I'm in position," said Johnson, a seven-time Tour winner who won the Masters in 2007 under the most difficult scoring conditions in 51 years at Augusta National.

Kuchar finds himself in contention at another huge tournament a month after he was tied for the lead in the Masters with three holes to play.

"That's what I keep telling myself and I believe it," he said. "I think it's a matter of keeping yourself in position, having the opportunities and before long, you find yourself in that winner's circle."

Johnson, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Kuchar, who went to high school in Orlando, college at Georgia Tech and lived for a time in Ponte Vedra Beach, have found their niche in the quiet St. Simons area. They have formed a bond with other players who live there such as English, Byrd, Brian Harman (68, and a tie for 17th at 3 under) and Chris Kirk (73, at even-par), who all will be playing the Stadium Course on the weekend.

Indeed, Kuchar's son Cameron is best friends with Johnson's son Will. When Kuchar asked his son who he'd be cheering for, there was enough hesitation to elicit laughs among the media.

"I'm not sure who he'll be cheering for," Kuchar said. "We have a great crew of guys up in [St. Simons]. All of us hang out at Frederica Golf Club. We played a round of golf there last week. I was looking forward to playing a round with [Johnson] tomorrow."

Na finished just ahead of Kuchar, so he'll be playing with Johnson in the final twosome. Kuchar will play with English.

English said having players such as Johnson, Kuchar and Byrd close at hand have helped his development on the PGA Tour.

"There are a lot of good guys there on the island to bounce stuff off," he said. "It's good to have some of those veterans to lean on in practice rounds when you've never seen the golf course. They'll kind of help you along the way."

An edge in the weekend battle might rest with Johnson, who would seem to have all the attributes needed to win a Players: a controlled, precise game off the tee and into the greens, a good short game and a putting stroke that may be better than Johnson himself believes. …

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