AUTHOR: WAYNE

HED:Wayne Clements: Gooch in the money for the first time

Lan Gooch needed a few minutes to cool off after Saturday's round at the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, and it wasn't just from the heat.

Gooch walked off the 18th green knowing his third-round 69 his best in three trips around Annandale Golf Club could have been much better. And he didn't really want to have to answer questions about it.

Gooch is 33 years old and just made his first cut in a PGA Tour event. He's been trying for 11 years to get to the point where he could play Saturday's third round on the PGA Tour. He had tried 12 times this year without making a cut.

And when he finally did make the cut Friday, this wasn't exactly what he had in mind.

Gooch was on fire for 12 holes Saturday, running his 3-under-par total to 8 under after back-to-back-to-back birdies to start the back nine. He saved par on 13 after pushing his tee shot into the trees right of the fairway, then two-putted 14 and 15 for pars.

For a glorious stretch of three holes, Gooch's name appeared on the leaderboard the first page, mind you of a PGA tournament.

Then it happened. Wayward tee shots on 16 and 17 led to bogeys, and he missed a birdie putt on 18 by inches, leaving him in also-ran mode for today's final round.

"It feels good to make progress," Gooch said, relaxing in the air conditioned locker room after finishing a television interview. "But they're not paying anybody on Saturday afternoon. It's progress, and you take it where you can find it, I guess."

Relaxing round of golf

Twelve times this year, Gooch had tried to make the cut in a PGA event. Twelve times he'd come up short. After working his way through the first two rounds at 3 under par, Gooch was assured of a paycheck for the first time.

"I was a good bit more relaxed today," he said. "The only thing on my mind was making birdies and seeing how close I could get to the leaders. That's the way you should play every day, but it's easier on Saturday than it is on Thursday and Friday."

Saturday seemed to be his day. He birdied the par-4 first hole, saved par on the course's toughest hole, the 465-yard par-4 fourth, after pushing his tee shot into the trees right of the fairway. Another birdie at the par-5 fifth, an inch or so away from an eagle, got him to 5 under for the tournament.

When he made the turn, Gooch turned it up a notch. He made birdie on 10 from eight feet, birdied the par-5 11th from eight feet and rolled in a third birdie from the back fringe at the par-3 12th. At that point, Gooch was 8 under par and just four strokes off the lead.

Even when his tee shot at the par-4 13th found the trees, Gooch didn't sweat. He merely punched out, lofted a wedge shot to 15 feet and calmly made the par putt.

Gooch lost ground on the par-4 16th and 17th holes after tee shots that went left. On 16, he came over the top of a 3-wood and punched his approach under a tree to the fringe, but couldn't get up and down from the front of the green.

On the 17th, which has an island landing area that makes the second shot 50 yards shorter than playing around the water, Gooch aimed for the island. He missed.

"I tried to cut it out on the island for the first time this week," he said. "I hit it solid, it just didn't cut. Heck of a time to hit one straight."

Playing for place now

Gooch's shot at finishing in the top 10 probably disappeared into the waters on 17. After playing so well for 15 holes Saturday, Gooch was frustrated by his finish.

"I wish (playing on Sunday) would mean more than it's going to mean now," he said. "At 6 under, I'd have to play really well to finish in the top 10. But even if I play great, it's not going to make a huge dent (in the leaderboard).

"It's disappointing. But if you play golf, it's the nature of the game. If I'd shot 62 today, I'd think it should have been a 61. You have to learn to live with it."

Asked if he were too aggressive coming down the stretch, Gooch shook his head. "Determined, yes, but I don't know about aggressive," he said. "I haven't quit trying. I'm determined to make it. It feels good to make the leaderboard, even so briefly."

It's taken 11 years to get this far. There's no sense in backing down now.

Wayne Clements is a sports writer for the Daily Journal.

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