It wasn’t even close. Steve Wheatcroft eagled the final hole to polish off his first career win in record-setting fashion at the Melwood Prince George’s County Open. The 33-year old Indiana University grad shot a final round 7-under 64 and lapped the field by a Nationwide Tour-record 12 strokes.
Wheatcroft finished at 29-under par and splattered his name all over the record book while picking up a first-place check for $108,000, which moved him from No. 32 to No. 2 on the season money list.
“I’m absolutely over-the-top ecstatic. I’ve been out here for five years and never won,” he said. “I wanted to make that next step and I wanted to do it in a big way.”
It wasn’t big, it was huge. The list of his accomplishments would take several pages but perhaps the most impressive was his score of 255, the lowest 72-hole total in the 22-year history of the Nationwide Tour. The old mark of 258 was set by Chris Smith at the 1997 Omaha Classic and later matched by Daniel Chopra at the 2004 Henrico County Open.
His margin of victory is also the largest in Tour history, topping Smith’s 11-stroke win 14 years ago and Marc Leishmann’s 11-shot margin at the 2008 WNB Golf Classic.
“I had the pedal to the floor all day,” said Wheatcroft. “I didn’t’ want anybody thinking they had a chance today.”
Nobody had much of a chance the last three days.
The Pennsylvania native moved to the front with his 10-under 61 in the second round and never turned around to see who was following. He set Tour records for the largest 36-hole lead (seven) and the largest 54-hole lead (eight) before slamming the door in Sunday’s finale.
“Friday was one of those crazy days and I just tried not to look back,” he said.
Ryan Armour posted a 9-under 62 to finish at 17-under par and grab a share of second place with Jon Mills (65). Nicholas Thompson (69) ended the week at 16-under to take solo fourth. Thompson had the best seat in the house Sunday, playing alongside Wheatcroft.
“He played phenomenal,” said Thompson. “There was no catching him.”
Wheatcroft eased into the day but left little doubt that he was headed to his first win when he rolled in birdies at Nos. 4, 6 and 8.
“Everybody behind me had nothing to lose and I knew they were going to be firing at pins. They were going to go as low as they can,” he said of his challengers. “The goal was to try and birdie as many as I could and get as far ahead as I could.”
Wheatcroft’s bandwagon started slowly but began to build as the record-setting day wore on.
“Making a birdie I look up and see ‘Terrible Towels’ waving,” said the Pittsburgh area native. “I hear everyone cheering and hear voices I recognize. My family was here, my girlfriend was here, my friends were here. We probably had 25-30 with us and we picked up a few more (fans) as we went along.”
His lead was in double digits at the turn and the only questions left to be answered would be about the final numbers.
“The first time I felt really safe was on 14 green. I probably had 18 feet left for par,” he said. “That was a huge boost for me. Fourteen and 15 are nasty holes if you don’t get it in play and things can change. You give one or two back and it shrinks and all of a sudden everyone’s thinking they have a shot.”
They were wrong. Wheatcroft kept the pressure and closed with a 5-foot birdie at No. 15, two-putted for birdie from 40 feet at No. 16 and then finished with a flourish.
“I wanted to go out with a bang,” he said. “I’m kind of a tv ham and the 18th green on Sunday is about as good as you’re going to get.”
Wheatcroft rolled in the eagle from 20 feet to finish off the week but the celebration will have to wait. He will join fellow pros and amateurs on Monday as they try to qualify for the U.S. Open, which will be played about 30 minutes away at Congressional Country Club.
“I’ll delay it one more day,” he said. “The U.S. Open is my biggest tournament. It’s my dream tournament. I’m pretty sure Monday night will be a big one.”
The celebration, like everything else, will pale in comparison to all that he accomplished over the past four days.