According to the record book, the long-time partners win Sunny King Charity Classic titles every three years — 2003, 2006 and 2009. They are on the cusp of a fourth — carrying a five-shot lead into today’s best-ball final round at Anniston Country Club — but the year is only 2011.
In Saturday’s modified scramble at Cider Ridge Golf Club, McGatha and
Ellison posted a brilliant 14-under-par 58 to stand at 29-under 115 for the championship. They lead by five over Brennan Clay and Dan Glidewell, the team they were tied with going into the day, and by six over two others.
While the stars seem aligned for McGatha and Ellison to break with personal tradition and with contenders suggesting that a four- or five-shot margin by round’s end might be too much to make up, as is their long-standing approach, the leaders are not taking anything for granted.
“It’s weird that it works that way,” McGatha said of the tandem’s schedule for Sunny King success, “but you can’t look ahead. At the Country Club we could shoot 3-under and somebody could shoot eight and we’re tied. It’s no gimme.
“You know our motto: We never take anything for granted. We have to come out tomorrow and start strong and see what happens. I’m definitely not going to say it’s over. In my mind, no lead is a big enough lead.”
To further illustrate his point, McGatha recalled that during the team’s first SKCC title, they carried a six-shot lead going into the final round and won by one as Eric Hamilton and Stan Sherlin shot 11-under. No winner has taken a lead bigger than three into the final round since.
McGatha-Ellison have led going into the final round in two of their three titles and the final rounds of their three title runs have been 64, 62 and 63, respectively. No champion has shot a final-round higher than 63 since 2003. The highest final round by a champion under the tournament’s current scoring format has been a 3-under 67. The last three winners have all shot 63 in the final round.
“If they’re four up going into (today), I think it’s going to be hard for anybody to catch them,” said Richard Turner, the former Jacksonville State catcher who’ll be playing in today’s next-to-last group six shots back.
The head-down, keep-it-in-the-road mentality of the leaders does start to drift into the median on one point, however. They are within striking distance of the modern-era tournament record of 35-under-par. “If we play our game, we’ll beat the record I think (today),” said a confident Ellison, who turns 33 today during the final round of the 33rd Classic.
The style of their game was on display Saturday. They were in every hole and made 14 birdies. They birdied each of their first five holes, parred No. 6, then closed out the front with three straight birdies. They had six birdies on the back, including Ellison’s 25-foot downhill putt on 18.
“They played really good,” said Marcus Harrell, one of the defending champions who with partner Ott Chandler matched the leaders shot-for-shot through 11 holes and still made up a lot of ground with a 60. “They made a lot of putts. They hit a lot of good shots and when they had a decent putt, they made it.”
One of the keys to the leaders’ margin is the way they’ve played the par-3s this week. They birdied all four Saturday and have birdied seven of the eight they’ve played in the tournament. Clay and Glidewell have birdied four. Richard Turner and Chris Maye, one of the teams at 23-under, have birdied one each on the first two days.
“Par-3s are crucial,’” McGatha said. “Like I said yesterday, Jaylon hits his irons so well, par-3s are usually in our favor. I’m a little skeptical, but I hit a few close on par-3s and when I didn’t, he did.”
Clay and Glidewell literally started the day tied for the lead – they played in the first group off — but didn’t have quite the same success as Friday and needed eagles on the two par-5s coming home to stay close to the top.
They were 5-under for the day at the turn and 6-under through 13, but gave a shot back at 14 after both made mistakes off the tee and Clay admitted he was starting to get discouraged. But he credited his partner for talking him off the ledge.
They were looking to play the final four holes in 6-under, but picked up only four shots — with the eagles on 15 and 18. On 15, Glidewell hit a 9-iron from 148 yards to seven feet and he dropped a 40-foot putt on 18.
“It was a struggle today,” Clay said. “We hit the ball good early and we were OK with five (under), but we got on the back and I don’t know what happened.
“I told Daniel when we got in the car my experience was I would think we’d be anywhere from two to four shots back … but if somebody shoots 12 or 13 (under) behind us, they’ve played a heluva round.”
The team that would be leading went one deeper than that, and now they have a chance to close out another victory today. One year ahead of schedule.
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.