Swinging hard lifts Champ into contention in PGA

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Cameron Champ hits from the fairway on the 18th hole during the second round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at TPC Harding Park Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

John Daly famously won a PGA Championship 29 years ago by swinging as hard as he could every time he got on the tee.

Cameron Champ just might do the same thing this weekend at Harding Park.

“Usually whenever I swing a little harder it goes a little straighter,’’ Champ said after shooting a 64 Friday to move into contention in San Francisco.

Swinging hard comes naturally to Champ. Before Bryson DeChambeau bulked up and began crushing drives this year, the 25-year-old was the gold standard on the PGA Tour when it came to swing speed and distance.

And on Friday he swung hard enough to hit it both long and straight on his way to a round that put him 5-under midway through the championship. Champ was first in driving distance and strokes gained off the tee among the morning wave of players, and it wasn’t even close.

“Today I hit the driver very well,’’ Champ said. “I think I missed one fairway on the front side, which is great. It just gave me a lot more chances to make birdies.’’

Champ made seven of them in his second round, against a lone bogey on the tough par-3 eighth. It was a relatively stress-free round, the kind that players appreciate even more under the harsh test of a major championship.

And while he’s not exactly a “grip it and rip it’’ kind of player like Daly, he’s got the length and temperament to be in contention to get his own name on the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.

“Everyone wants to talk about distance, yeah, it’s our new modern era,’’ he said. “The long ball is what attracts everyone. You know, which it should. Nowadays guys are hitting it longer and longer and longer. But it’s definitely not something that bothers me or anything like that. To me, yes, you can hit it far, but you’ve still got to put up a score.’’

Champ’s story is a familiar one to avid golf fans, though more people talk about his 330-yard drives than his two PGA Tour wins. His grandfather who died last year introduced him to the game when he was young, and he took advantage of the First Tee program to learn the fundamentals.

Coming from a family of modest means — his father, Jeff, was a low minor league player in the Baltimore organization — Champ relied on scholarships and grants to travel and play in junior events outside of his hometown of Sacramento. He had success in college at Texas A&M and won in his first year on the Korn Ferry Tour before making it to golf’s big leagues.

So far this year his biggest splash came when he tested positive for COVID-19 at the Traveler’s Championship. Two negative tests days after that prompted the PGA Tour to change its guidelines and he was playing in Detroit the next week.

Now, after rounds of 71-64, he’s lurking just off the lead on a golf course he’s played before in an area where he’s quite comfortable.

“It definitely feels kind of like home,’’ he said. “I’ve played a lot of golf down here, just all over California, honestly. It’s just nice to be back here.’’

He doesn’t need the comfort to free up a swing that has been clocked at 192 mph. Hitting the ball hard comes naturally to Champ, who like any other kid always wanted to be the longest in his group growing up.

That hasn’t changed as a pro, even in a major championship. Champ didn’t go for the green on the driveable par-4 16th hole because he was in between a 3-wood and a driver on the shot, but otherwise subscribed to pretty much the same theory Daly had in 1991 when he wowed everyone with his power at Crooked Stick.

“I’m not worrying about trying to keep it low and trying to make sure it cuts so it stays in the fairway versus if I just go at it,’’ Champ said. “if I miss the fairway I’m going to be a lot further up there and just deal with it. Then obviously if I found my groove kind of like I did today, then I’ll hit a lot of fairways.’’

It’s a winning combination, though the pressure of being in contention in a major might change things over the weekend.

Even for the best players, hitting the ball hard isn’t always easy.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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