HUMBLE, Texas – Steve Wheatcroft has gone from sweating out a qualifier to leading the Houston Open.
Wheatcroft shot a 5-under 67 on Friday to take a one-stroke lead over first-round leader D.A. Points and Jason Kokrak. He hasn't made a bogey through 36 holes and had the overnight lead at a PGA Tour event for the first time.
"My only good finishes were when I putted really well," said Wheatcroft, a former walk-on for the Indiana golf team. "When I putt well, it's scary good."
On Monday afternoon, Wheatcroft didn't think he'd even make the field. He failed to qualify for last week's Web.com event in Louisiana and only decided to try Houston because it was a 3-hour drive away.
He shot a 5-under 67 on Monday morning at nearby Cypresswood, but he didn't like his chances of making the cut for Houston when he saw a bunch of former PGA Tour pros ready to tee off in the afternoon. So he went to a movie.
"I didn't want to sit here and watch everybody finish and figure out what they're fist-pumping for on 18," he said. "Figured that would take my mind off things."
But Wheatcroft kept updating the scores on his phone, returned to the course and found out that he had earned one of the final four spots available for Redstone.
"I knew my swing was getting a lot better in the last month or so," he said, "just a matter of showing up at the right time, I guess."
Stewart Cink, winless since the British Open in 2009, shot a 66 and was tied for fourth with Brian Davis (70). Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera, the Argentine who has a home at Redstone, had a 72 and was four shots behind, along with Bill Haas (70) and Cameron Tringale (73).
Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson were both nine shots back. Even though he'll have two more rounds in Houston, McIlroy committed to play in next week's Texas Open for one more tuneup before the Masters.
A victory would put Wheatcroft in the Masters field for the first time and also earn him a two-year exemption on the tour. He can become the first Monday qualifier to win on the PGA Tour since Arjun Atwal at the Wyndham Championship in August 2010.
Wheatcroft's best finish on the PGA Tour was a tie for third in the Puerto Rico Open in March 2010. His only victory was a 12-stroke romp at the Prince George's County Open in 2011, the highlight of his career so far.
He was back struggling on the big tour in 2012, making only seven cuts in 22 starts. His only two previous starts this year came on the lesser tour, in Panama and Colombia.
But Wheatcroft felt completely at ease Friday, humming The Killers' song "Runaway" as he walked the fairways. He was looking forward to watching some college basketball on Friday night — even though Indiana was out of the NCAA tournament — and seeing his fiancee, who was flying in to meet him on Saturday.
"I don't have to worry about the money list out here, I don't have to worry about my status out here," Wheatcroft said. "If I win, it's great. It's kind of a win, or nothing. I just get to go play golf this week."
Wheatcroft will play in the final group on Saturday with Kokrak, a close friend.
"I'm happy for him," Kokrak said. "I'm happy he's doing well. Hopefully, I can go out there and overtake the lead. Hopefully, I overtake him late Sunday."
Points followed a 64 with a bland 71 — 17 pars and a birdie on the par-4 12th. When the wind picked up in the afternoon, Points played it safe.
"I was maybe a little cautious, but I didn't have a lot of green lights," he said. "When you don't have that, you know, when you're in the position of (the) lead or close to the lead, you can't really squander them."
McIlroy (70) and Mickelson (71) will play the weekend, but just barely.
Playing just his 10th full round of the year, McIlroy got up and down from 85 yards on the par-5 15th, then rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th. He felt better much about his game than he did after his opening 73.
"I think there was a lot more consistency in it, wasn't as many loose shots in there," he said. "All in all, it was an improvement (from Thursday), which is the main thing."
Mickelson also rallied with three straight birdies on the back nine.
"I feel like tomorrow, I have a chance now when I show up," he said. "I'm not searching, I'm not trying to find it. I know what it is I'm trying to do and the feelings I'm trying to create to hit certain shots."