SANDY — As the early morning sun creeps over the Wasatch Mountains with the summer dew still sprinkled across the greens, a chunk of the world's best golfers will challenge Willow Creek Country Club.
The 14th edition of the Web.com Tour's Utah Championship tees off Thursday. The field is sorted into 52 groups of three with the first threesomes hitting the course at 7 a.m. on both the No. 1 and No. 10 holes. Once again, the purse is priced at $550,000 with the winner receiving $99,000.
The annual tournament came quickly this year and will end on Sunday the 15th, the earliest in its history. It marks the halfway point in the Web.com season and falls directly after a bye week.
Willow Creek provides numerous birdie opportunities after playing as the 19th hardest course of the 28 Web.com-sanctioned events in 2011 with a 70.018 scoring average on the par-71 layout.
Casey Wittenberg, the lone two-time winner this season, noted that in order to shoot low rounds golfers need to stay safe off the tee box.
"I think you have to drive the ball in the fairway. It's not a real long golf course, so you don't necessarily have to hit driver off every tee," Wittenberg said. "But, the scores are relatively low here year in and year out — you have to put the ball in the fairway to be able to score.
"Everybody can make a bunch of birdies and reach all the par-5s," he continued. "I think it's a ball-striker's golf course; you have to be able to work the ball both ways off the tees to a certain degree."
There are several troublesome holes where penciling pars and avoiding bogies could be the difference throughout the week.
The No. 8 is a 581-yard par-5 with a 90-degree dogleg right featuring an army of trees protecting the inside corner and two fairway bunkers providing hazard to the outside.
"(No.) 8 is a real hard hole. It's a little weird; not very often do you hit 3-irons and 5-irons potentially into a (par-5) green," Wittenberg said."
The No. 4 hole is another dogleg right, 382-yard par-4 that requires a well-placed tee shot in order to approach a wicked two-tiered green. If golfers overshoot the green, it's extremely difficult to recover with the canyon-like slope.
"You've just got to make it through (the No. 4 and No. 8) holes and try and make up your ground on the others," Wittenberg said.
With wins at the Louisiana Open and the Wichita Open, Wittenberg is the favorite again this week. He's made seven cuts in 12 starts and another win would provide an automatic promotion to the PGA Tour. He finished third at the Utah Championship in 2011, shooting rounds of 68-69-66-65. He's scheduled to tee off at 7:40 a.m. on the No. 1 hole.
"I've been hitting the ball very well. In the weeks I've putted well — I've won," he said. "It's not easy to win at any period of time out here. I just need to stay on track on what I'm doing and hopefully put myself in position to have another crack at it."
Peter Tomasulo, in his second start after returning from injury, won the United Leasing Championship two weeks ago. He's slated for a 7:20 a.m. tee time on No. 10.
Andres Gonzales follows shortly thereafter at 8 a.m. on No. 10. With his long-tangled hair and thick goatee, he's gained notoriety via his twitter account, especially his tweets to Tiger Woods, Luke Donald and Bubba Watson.
Paul Haley II, the current money leader on tour, takes the No. 1 tee at 1:10 p.m. He's tallied one win, two second-place finishes and four top 10s.
At Willow Creek Country Club
First round starts at 7 a.m.
TV: GOLF, 4:30 p.m.
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