Aaron Watkins has flourished amid the support – and even the occasional dissension – he has incurred as a Kansas State alumnus and frequent competitor in the Air Capital Classic.
Tom Gillis, meanwhile, is a 45-year-old golf journeyman and first-time visitor to Crestview Country Club who raved about the golf course Friday. But his edgy social media opinions on club-related topics are landing him as much attention this week as his quality golf.
Whatever reception awaits the two Saturday will come later in the day, as Watkins and Gillis will be in the final pairing for the Web.com Tour event’s third round. Watkins, a 31-year-old who lives in Mesa, Ariz., followed an opening-round 63 with a 4-under-par 66 for a two-shot lead over Gillis, Sam Saunders and Sebastian Cappelen.
Seventy golfers out of the 156 who started the tournament advanced to the weekend, as the 36-hole cut fell at 2-under 138. Defending champion Scott Parel is part of the group after completing the second round at 3 under.
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Watkins, who opened the day with a one-shot lead over Brad Elder, Gavin Coles and amateur Ollie Schniederjans, climbed to 11-under 129 after two rounds. He had the first tee time Friday morning and made his first bogey of the tournament. But five birdies on par-4 holes helped Watkins stay atop the leaderboard.
“It wasn’t quite as clean as yesterday,” said Watkins, who is seeking his first Web.com victory. “I struggled a little bit. I missed a couple fairways, but managed just to play safe and kind of take bogey out of the equation.”
Gillis, who has also played on the PGA and European tours, and Coles temporarily bumped Watkins from the top spot in the second round. But Gillis finished with a 65 that left him in the second-place trio at 9 under, while Coles’ 69 left him tied for ninth.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came here,” said Gillis, who earned more than $1 million on the PGA Tour in both the 2010 and 2012 seasons. “They’ve got it in great shape. I figured we’d be playing in the Plains with no trees and all that. It’s a good golf course.”
After signing his scorecard and conducting media interviews, Gillis was summoned to visit with tour officials and Crestview general manager Ken Nicholas near the scoring tent. A day earlier, Gillis posted a Twitter comment critical of the club and another with a picture of a female golfer practicing in the chipping area during Thursday’s first round.
Gillis accused the woman of “grandstanding” against the tour’s presence at Crestview in his post-round comments.
“In my tweet, which I probably shouldn’t even have sent out, I lumped all the members of the club in there, and I probably should have just said some or one in particular,” Gillis said.
Gillis, 28th on the tour’s season money list, is three spots ahead of Saunders, the 26-year-old grandson of Arnold Palmer. Saunders birdied three of his first four holes en route to a 65 that landed him a spot in the penultimate group.
“I like the position I’m in,” Saunders said. “It seems like it’s easier to play when you’re in contention than when you’re just fighting to make a cut.”
Cappelen, a 24-year-old from Denmark, is making a splash in his Web.com Tour debut. Earlier in the week, he earned the last Monday qualifying spot at Auburn Hills and became the first University of Arkansas golfer to receive All-America recognition all four years.
“I felt like I was playing good on Monday,” said Cappelen, who competed in the NCAA Championship last month in Hutchinson. “After getting in, I felt like I had a good feeling and I know where my game was. So all I had to do was go hit the ball and I felt like I was going to be in a good, comfortable spot.”
With four golfers three shots off the lead and five others within four, Watkins expects it will take more birdies to keep the field at bay. He said any fixation on a particular score over the next two days is wasted effort.
“You can’t ever think you’ve got to get to a certain number,” Watkins said. “It can be completely different (conditions). It can blow 50 (mph) out of the north and then everyone’s wondering what to do.
“I’ll just kind of play it hole by hole and try to take advantage, especially on the back nine. There’s a lot of scoring holes back there.”