Fowler: Unknown Australian Gardiner’s g’day has him flirting with lead

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comMay 3, 2013 

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Scott Gardiner hits out of the rough along the 18th fairway during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club on May 3, 2013.

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

If you want someone obscure to root for this weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship, I’ve got the guy for you.

His name is Scott Gardiner. He’s funny. He’s an Australian – although he now lives in Arkansas. He’s the first person of aboriginal descent to ever earn a full-time PGA Tour card. He is a 37-year-old rookie, oldest on this year’s Tour, and he is as stunned as everyone else that at the halfway point of this tournament he is tied for second place, only two strokes behind leader Phil Mickelson.

When I asked him what he had expected of this week, Gardiner laughed and replied: “Agony.”

Gardiner’s first year on the PGA hasn’t exactly been a storybook. Coming into Charlotte, he had missed eight straight cuts. He went 0-for-March. He went 0-for-April. He had the same sort of free time every weekend that the Panthers do every January.

But Gardiner shot 67 Friday, including four consecutive birdies on the front nine, and held the outright lead for much of Friday afternoon until Mickelson started rolling. Mickelson and Gardiner – the guy everybody loves and the guy nobody knows – will play together in Saturday’s final group.

“Probably nobody’s more surprised than I am,” Gardiner said.

How come?

“Have you seen my resume this year?” he cracked.

Gardiner has kicked around the minor golf tours for most of the past dozen years, narrowly missing the chance to get his call-up to the big leagues on several occasions. He finally earned his card in 2012, played his first PGA tournament ever in Hawaii in January and finished tied for 15th, winning $89,600. It was a glorious week.

“I got a false impression,” said Gardiner, who hasn’t come close to repeating that finish since.

He made it to the weekend in two of his next three tournaments and then the slide began in earnest. Gardiner had missed nine cuts in his 12 PGA tournaments coming into Quail Hollow. He had been awed a number of times at the high level of play, many times while watching from his couch.

“These guys are good,” he said.

But Gardiner has been very good himself for two straight days. Some of the greens at Wells Fargo have the same unfortunate look as a teenager who sprouted a huge pimple the night before the prom.

Gardiner doesn’t care. He made four consecutive birdies on holes six through nine, including one 26-foot putt. He will tee off Saturday afternoon on a leader board that includes far more well-known surnames like McIlroy, Mickelson, Glover and Westwood.

“It’s nice to be in the same tournament as they are,” Gardiner sad. “That’s my first thought…. And yeah, it’s much better to look at your name when it’s 7 under as opposed to 7 over.”

Gardiner is something of a cult figure in Australia, where he was one of the products of a government-funded sports program that was dubbed “Hunt for the Australian Tiger.”

He was far from an Australian Tiger Woods, of course – Adam Scott would come much closer to that – but Gardiner has managed to earn a living. He met his future wife at a minor-league tour event in Arkansas and has lived in the state since 2007, becoming a fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Gardiner doesn’t get back to Australia that much anymore. His father is Scottish and his mother is an indigenous Australian – they are both still elementary school teachers in Australia. Gardiner is a popular figure in his home country partly because his aboriginal descent can be traced so clearly and partly because he’s so likable.

The Sydney Morning Herald opined in 2012: “Put simply, Gardiner is one of the nicest blokes you could ever meet in golf; perhaps too nice, for all successful professional golfers have a touch of mongrel in them.”

What if Gardiner pulled off the miracle and actually won this tournament? He almost seemed startled by the idea.

“That would be incredible,” he said. “I just want to play two more good rounds. It’s going to be a thrill.”

Maybe the agony is yet to come – golf is cruel like that. But it is also possible that Gardiner – cast in Mickelson’s deep shadow on Saturday -- could be headed toward the best finish of his life.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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