POTOMAC -- There have been four first-time winners on the PGA Tour this year.
The conclusion of the Kemper Open today could provide a fifth.
Heading into the final round at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, the first four spots on the leader board are held by guys who never have won on the PGA Tour. It's tempting to look at the names immediately behind them -- the Dalys and Hochs and Stewarts -- and envision the newcomers toppling like so many dominoes, but it's a different game in the 1990s.
"Because of the mini-tours, players are a lot more seasoned when they get here," said Gil Morgan, who at 49 is the oldest player in the field. "Some of these guys are ready to win. At the same time, if you've got leaks, they're going to show in this situation."
The nobodies trying to become a somebody are led by Jay Williamson, who began the day a stroke off the lead and birdied No. 18 to post a 68 and get to 12-under. He's a stroke ahead of Steve Stricker, who had the day's best round, a 65, and David Toms, who followed Friday's 65 with a 66. Brad Fabel had a 66 to move to 10-under.
John Daly (68) and Morgan (69) are 9-under. Scott Hoch (68), Payne Stewart (68) and Larry Mize (70) moved to 8-under. Brad Faxon (68) and Mark O'Meara (70) are among those within five strokes of the lead at 7-under, but from that distance, there are a whole mess of bodies to climb over.
Williamson plans to keep an eye on all of them.
"I'm a scoreboard watcher, and I've got to know where I stand," said Williamson, who at 29 gives away two decades of experience to Morgan. "I'd like to put myself in some of their shoes. 'Who's this Williamson kid? Can he handle the pressure?'
"All I know is, I must be doing something right. That's the first weekend when I've been in contention that I shot under par."
RTC Williamson's fiancee, Marnie, was in a wedding in St. Louis yesterday, but he expected her to jet into town this morning. Stricker, the man he'll be paired with, spends more time with his significant other than anyone on the tour. Nicki Stricker is the only wife who regularly caddies for her husband, and she got some of the credit for his sizzling 31 on the front 9.
"I was going to lay up on No. 6, but Nicki persuaded me to go for it," Stricker said of a par-5 on which he had an easy two-putt birdie. "She knows the game. She's a 6, 7 handicap. I give her 3, 4 strokes a side, and we get pretty competitive."
Fabel played well earlier this year, but has struggled lately with a knee injury. He had arthroscopic surgery 12 days ago to repair some cartilage damage. He's wearing a brace and taking anti-inflammatory medication, and hit 13 of 14 fairways to keep the joint out of nasty lies that await wayward shots at Avenel.
A few stragglers and geese followed Toms around Friday afternoon, when he threatened the course-record 63 that he shares, but his gallery was a bit louder yesterday, when he was paired with Daly. Toms faced the reality of the situation on the first hole, after the most popular player here dropped a long putt for birdie.
"John [Daly] made his putt, and everyone went nuts and started running to the next hole to see his drive there," Toms said. "I slowed down, let them go, and made my putt for birdie."
Daly, who is doing his best to market a 0-iron that won't be the only one of its kind for long, has put together his best three rounds of the year.
"It's been awhile since I've been in this position, and I don't know how I'll react," Daly said. "I don't think experience matters anymore. The players coming up now don't fear anything."
Morgan's last win on the PGA Tour was here, in 1990, but the 4-wood approach he laid on a muddy ball at No. 6 was a championship shot. Hoch, who earned the right to represent the U.S. in the world match play championships, has been a model of consistency despite greens he detests. Stewart fell to 3-under with weak bogeys on Nos. 2 and 3, but the man in plus-fours birdied four of the last 10 holes to join the hunt.
Williamson, of course, watched it all unfold on the leader board. He was in the final pairing, where playing partner Scott McCarron (74) coughed up the second-round lead with an ugly double-bogey on No. 6, where he put two balls in a creek. Williamson eagled the hole.
"I've proven to myself the last three days that I can compete out here," Williamson said. "I haven't had a lot of success, but there's reason I can't come out here and win. If I don't, I'll say I didn't have the experience, but I don't want to have to say that."
The leader . . .
J. Williamson 66-67-68-201
. . . and selected followers
Steve Stricker 69-68-65-202
David Toms 71-65-66-202
Brad Fabel 67-70-66-203
John Daly 69-67-68-204
Gil Morgan 70-65-69-204
Scott Hoch 69-68-68-205
Payne Stewart 70-67-68-205
Larry Mize 68-67-70-205
Mark O'Meara 67-69-70-206
S. McCarron 66-66-74-206
Complete scores. (Page 13E)
Pub Date: 5/26/96