St. Simon's Island, Ga. – Two quick birdies and Charles Howell III was five shots ahead.
Four hours later, he was reminded why winning never comes easily, especially for someone who has gone more than 11 years and 332 starts since his last victory.
Howell didn’t make enough birdies Saturday to do much of anything except post a 2-under 68 and keep his name atop the leaderboard at the RSM Classic, even if only by one shot over PGA Tour rookie Cameron Champ and part-time insurance salesman Jason Gore.
“I have a chance to win the tournament, and I’d have taken that Thursday morning,” Howell said.
He was at 16-under 194.
Champ ran off four straight birdies around the turn and shot 4-under 66. A winner at the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi last month, this is the 12th time in his last 15 rounds Champ has been in the top 10. Gore, who only a few weeks ago became certified to sell insurance in California, overcame a missed tap-in at the turn with three birdies and an 18-foot eagle putt over his next six holes and shot 66.
Any three of them holding the trophy Sunday would be an ideal way for the PGA Tour to end the calendar year.
Champ gets attention with his sheer power. His club head speed (nearly 130 mph) and ball speed (just over 192 mph) are numbers not seen on the PGA Tour, and he is going for his second victory in five starts as a rookie.
“I’m rolling the ball the best I ever had, and I’m also hitting quality shots,” Champ said. “So I know I’m going to have enough looks throughout the round.”
Gore only received a sponsor exemption Sunday evening when he was headed to Pebble Beach for an unofficial event. The 44-year-old had to think about accepting it because he hasn’t played in three months, and he hasn’t played the weekend on the PGA Tour since July 2017.
Being away from golf makes it fun. He steps up to the ball and hits the shot, just like playing with clients. Being in the hunt is hard to believe.
What will Sunday bring?
“I don’t really care, to be honest with you,” Gore said. “What am I going to do tomorrow? I’m going to show up. I’m going to put the tee in the ground and I’m going to hit it. I wish I could give you some profound answer, but that’s really all I’ve got. It’s not going to change my life. Well, it could change my life, but I’m not going to look at it that way, how about that?”
The winner gets an invitation to the Masters, especially meaningful to Howell, who grew up in Augusta.
His last victory was at Riviera in 2007, and the last time Howell had at least a share of the 54-hole lead was 10 years ago at Turning Stone, a tournament that no longer exists. Howell has not won in any of his previous five times atop the leaderboard going into the final round.
Webb Simpson had a 63 and was two shots behind, along with Ryan Blaum (65). Ten players are within five shots of the lead, a list that includes Sea Island resident Zach Johnson, who had a 65.
That was the size of Howell’s lead over the field when he had two birdies through three holes, and even after his first bogey of the tournament when he went just over the back of the green at No. 4. But he recovered with a pair of birdies, made the turn in 32 and had a four-shot lead over Champ.
And then it was steady golf the rest of the way as Champ and Gore, along with Simpson and others, closed the gap.
“I didn’t finish off with much of anything,” Howell said. “I knew the guys would make birdies and close the gap if I didn’t get going, and that’s what happened.”
He was asked whose place he would take in the final group, a 23-year-old rookie who won a month ago or a 44-year-old who considers himself a part-time player.
“I’ll be a disgruntled 39-year-old right in the middle,” Howell said with a laugh.
It was hard for him not to be impressed with Champ, who mainly hit his strong 3-iron off the tee and continued to show poise for his limited experience.
“I’ve never seen an iron hit as hard as he hits it. Holy cow,” Howell said. “I played a lot of golf with Tiger from 2000 through ‘08. I’ve not seen a guy hit a golf ball this hard ever that played professional golf. This guy’s got a hell of a future.”
Lexi Thompson has control of the CME Group Tour Championship, and Ariya Jutanugarn is in control of just about everything else.
Thompson’s 4-under 68 on at Naples, Florida, pushed her to 16-under after three rounds of the LPGA’s season-ending event, as she moved three shots clear of Nelly Korda and six ahead than Carlota Ciganda at Tiburon Golf Club. Korda shot her second consecutive 67 to get to 13 under, and Ciganda grinded out a 69 to get to 10 under for the week.
Thompson has been nearly flawless this week. Her only dropped shot of the tournament came Saturday when she made bogey at the par-4 fourth hole, then put together five birdies over the remainder of her round.
If Thompson hangs on Sunday, she’ll have her first win of the season. If Jutanugarn keeps things together, she’ll leave with plenty of prizes as well.
Patrick Reed and Danny Willett each put on a green jacket the last time they won a tournament. Now they have their eyes set on another significant prize.
Reed, the reigning Masters champion, and Willett, who won that event two years earlier, closed at Dubai, United Arab Emiratess at 14-under 202 and will enter the final day of the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship as co-leaders.
Willett, one stroke off the lead after the second round, shot a 4-under 68, and Reed carded a 5-under 67 to move one stroke ahead of Jordan Smith.
Lee Westwood, who won the Nedbank Challenge last week, shot a 65 and moved into a tie for fourth place with Dean Burmester.
Reed, who had just one three-putt bogey – on the long par-3 fourth hole – made four birdies when the wind started picking up on the 7,675-yard Earth course at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
“I feel good,” said Reed, who entered the week ranked 17th in the world. “I feel like the consistency of my game is where it needs to be. You’re always going to have hot flashes here and there and you’re always going to have kind of low points.
“I feel like my low points are getting better, and they are more manageable and I can miss the golf ball where I need to miss it. When you can do that, you’re able to eliminate a lot of the big mistakes and keep the bogeys off the card and I think that’s key.”
Reed, who said winning would be “a little early Christmas gift,” will have to get past a resurgent Willett, was ranked No. 462 in May but entered the event 276th.
Willett was 1 under through 13 holes before making three consecutive birdies for a 68.
“It would be nice to win, but there’s a lot of golf left,” Willett said. “A lot can happen in 18 holes.
“I’m just happy with the golf game. The body is feeling good, and … it’s been a long old year with all the stuff that’s gone on – and for this to be the last event this year with a field this good is a real bonus. I am going to go out and try to play some good golf (on Sunday).”
Although the tournament remains poised for an exciting finish, the fate of the Race to Dubai was almost sealed on the penultimate day of the season when Tommy Fleetwood, needing to win to retain the title over Francesco Molinari, slumped to a 74 and fell eight shots behind the leaders.
Molinari shot a 70 to move to 5 under, tied for 27th place and just one shot behind Fleetwood.
“I feel the adrenaline might have gone now,” Fleetwood said, seemingly conceding the race. “I think you kind of know when your time’s up. I lasted within two days of the season. It was going to be a stretch trying to win it, but it is what it is. I’ll play (Sunday) and we’ll see how we do, but it’s fine.”
Three-time European No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is attempting to win the tournament a third time – carded a 71 to fall into a tie for 13th with a 207.
Abraham Ancer shot a 7-under 65 at Sydney to leave Matt Kuchar and Keegan Bradley and the rest of the Australian Open field well behind after three rounds.
The Mexican golfer had a five-birdie stretch mid-round, then added two late birdies to finish with a 13-under total of 203 and a five-shot lead going into Sunday’s final round at The Lakes.
Japan amateur Keita Nakajima was in second place after 70, while Bradley was tied for third with Australian veteran Marcus Fraser. They were six strokes behind after 71s.
Kuchar, who trailed by a stroke after the second round, shot 73 Saturday and was tied for fifth, seven behind Ancer.