By Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Harris English is becoming more comfortable on the PGA Tour every week, and feels right at home on TPC Southwind’s Bermuda grass greens.
English shot a 6-under 64 on Friday to open a two-stroke lead in the St. Jude Classic. The 23-year-old former Georgia star had never even had a piece of a lead on the PGA Tour until Thursday when he found himself tied with five others, including Davis Love III, after 18 holes.
He used a hot putter to roll in five birdie putts, holed out from 181 yards for eagle on the par-4 fifth and had only one bogey to finish the second round at 10-under 130.
“It’s awesome to be in this position,” English said. “I’ve worked very hard the last couple weeks and couple months to get in this position, and I feel like I’m ready and I feel like I got a lot of good people around me to help me.”
Shawn Stefani was second after a 65. Paul Haley II and Scott Stallings each shot 68 to reach 5 under. Love was tied with four others at 4 under after a 70, and defending champion Dustin Johnson also had a 70 to finish at 3 under. Phil Mickelson was 2 under after a 67 in his final tuneup for the U.S. Open next week at Merion in Pennsylvania.
Only four players had rounds of 4 under or better on a near perfect day at TPC Southwind. Doug Labelle II and Scott Verplank were the only other players to go at least 4 under with a 66 apiece.
But English turned in the best round on a course playing very tough despite a temperature around 80 degrees — very rare at this time of year in Memphis. Any wind came out of the north instead of the south. Combined with the small and firm greens, hitting the greens required precise shots. Hitting the fairways also is a must to control shots to the greens.
“Obviously, if he has another two days like the first two, it will be tough to catch him,” Johnson said about English. “But I would say I look forward to being bunched throughout on Sunday coming down the stretch.”
This is English’s second year on tour after finishing up his college career at Georgia in 2011.
The 6-foot-3 English was still an amateur when he won on the Web.com Tour at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational in July 2011, and he moved to the PGA Tour in 2012 and finished 79th on the money list. This year, he already has three top 10s, including his best finish yet with a tie for sixth at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans.
Love has kept track of English for years. English lives in Sea Island, and Love isn’t surprised by how well he is playing.
“His game has really improved, and he’s playing well and he’s not afraid to shoot low scores,” Love said.
English opened with a 66 putting himself into the knot of players tied at 4 under atop the leaderboard after the first 18 holes. Teeing off Friday morning, English used his putter to start with three birdies in three holes, rolling in putts from 9, 10 and 17 feet.
Then English had possibly the shot of the day on the par-4 No. 5 playing at 482 yards. After a 3-wood off the tee, he hit an 8-iron 181 yards from the fairway and watched the ball roll at least 10 feet before falling into the cup for eagle.
“I haven’t holed out in a while,” English said. “To make it on 2, probably the hardest hole on the golf course, is kind of unbelievable.”
English dropped a 15-footer on the par-4 15th to become the first player here to reach double-digits under par, and he added a 10-footer on the par-5 16th after hitting his shot from the rough just in front of the green. That birdie put him 11 under.
“I grew up on greens like this down in south Georgia, fast Bermuda greens,” English said. “I’m very comfortable on these type of greens. I know when it’s going to be fast, and it’s really fast. And when into the green, it’s really slow. I have a good handle on the speed. That’s really what helped me today. When you get the speed down on the greens, you can start making some putts.”
English also is very familiar with Tennessee. He played at The Baylor School in Chattanooga, helping win four state titles including an individual high school championship for himself. He even won one of those titles at a course approximately an hour away. He also has friends currently in medical school here in Memphis that he has been visiting with the past couple days.
“It does feel like home,” English said.
The only hiccup in English’s round came on No. 18. He hit driver only twice Friday and stuck with his 3-wood off the tee only to hit what he called his only bad shot of the day. The ball stopped near a drain. He wound up with a 30-footer and two-putted for his lone bogey.
“I’m still looking for my first win and still hungry to be the best and to try to get my first win,” English said
Notes: Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old amateur from China who made the cut at the Masters, missed the cut. The cut came at 1-over 141, and he went 73-71-144. … Brandt Snedeker (143) and D.A. Points (148) also missed the cut. Paul Goydos did too, but he did play Friday and shot a 72-145 after fearing he had re-injured his left wrist in the opening round. … Ian Poulter took off his right sock and rolled his pant leg up to his knee with his ball resting just in the water fronting the par-4 12th green. He pitched the ball onto the green and then pointed at his white shirt, happy that none of the mud that went flying with his stroke hit him. He bogeyed the hole but was at 137.