Saturday's golf: Gooch takes 3-shot lead at Sea Island and goes for 1st win

Associated Press

St. Simon's Island, Ga. – Talor Gooch is playing some of his best golf in the toughest weather, even when he hasn’t been in the best position off the tee. Now the former Oklahoma State player is one round away from his first PGA Tour victory at the RSM Classic.

Gooch hit only six fairways Saturday at Sea Island and still managed a 3-under 67, stretching his lead to three shots going into the final round.

Nelly Korda, of the United States, walks on the first hole green during the third round.

“Any day like that is going to be a grind on the tour,” Gooch said. “To be frank, what you’re trying to do out there is avoid bogeys. It would have been easy today at times to just really get conservative and really be defensive. I was pleased I was able to stay aggressive at times.”

He was at 16-under 196, three shots clear of Seamus Power of Ireland (67) and Sebastian Munoz of Colombia (69). Both have won on the PGA Tour. Power won the Barbasol Championship this summer the same week as the British Open, so it didn’t not come with an invitation to the Masters. A victory Sunday will.

Tom Hoge, also in search of his first win, had a 67 and was alone in fourth, while Luke List (66), former RSM Classic winner Mackenzie Hughes of Canada (70) and Scott Stallings (69) were another shot behind.

Gooch pulled away with a short birdie putt at the par-5 15th hole and a 12-footer for birdie at the par-3 17th. He missed from 25 feet on the final hole but could hardly be upset about holding himself together on a cloudy, chilly, windy day.

And he wasn’t the least bit surprising. He is playing as well as anyone in the fall who hasn’t won, with four finishes among the top 11 in his six tournaments. He now is on the cusp of breaking into the top 50 in the world.

Gooch isn’t as well known as other former Oklahoma State players such as Rickie Fowler, Viktor Hovland or Matthew Wolff. But he’s working on it and on Sunday will be trying to become the seventh player in 12 years to make the RSM Classic his first tour title.

“I want to be the best and I want to compete against the best and I want to be the best Oklahoma State golfer on tour,” he said. “Everyone talks about Matt Wolff and Viktor Hovland … rightfully so. They’re incredible players. But that’s always a nice little something to kind of get you to work a little bit harder, be a little bit more diligent and try to prove them wrong.”

Standing in Gooch’s immediate way are Power, who chipped in for eagle at the par-5 15th to highlight his round, and Munoz, the 18-hole leader who rallied from back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 11 and 12 to two-putt No. 15 for birdie.

“It wasn’t easy,” Munoz added. “It was a little more gusty than I anticipated. I felt like I got off to a good start making three up-and-downs on tough holes, tough conditions, so felt really good. I putted good. It’s tough to putt with windy conditions, so I felt like I put a good round.”

Power figures he has been out of Ireland for too long – the 34-year-old played at East Tennessee State – for the windy conditions to be a big advantage.

“I’ve been in the States for 15 years so I’ve gotten kind choosy with my weather,” he said. “So like I wouldn’t play that often but it’s just fun. You do hit a lot of different shots. It’s not always stuff you can practice. You’re standing out there and the wind is blowing in your chest. I learned a lot growing up in it but to be honest, anymore I kind of stay away from it if can.”

LPGA

At Naples, Florida, Nelly Korda was watching from the tee box on the par-3 fifth hole as Jin Young Ko rolled in a birdie putt from 10 feet, the fourth of seventh straight birdies for the South Korean star.

Moments later, Korda holed a 45-foot chip for birdie.

It was like that all day at the CME Group Tour Championship. It’s been like that all year.

Now their race to be No. 1 on the LPGA Tour goes all the way to the final round of the season.

Ko rode her stretch of seven straight birdies to a 6-under 66. Korda answered by overpowering the par 5s on the back nine at Tiburon for a 67. They were part of a four-way tie for the lead Saturday going into the final round, with nothing less than $1.5 million and LPGA player of the year on the line.

None of that seems to faze Korda, a 23-year-old American with an elegant swing who is ruthless when it comes to competing.

“It’s for other people,” Korda said of how the stage is set for the LPGA finale. “I’m just out there to do my job, taking a shot at a time, and see where it takes me. That’s all you can do.”

They were tied with Celine Boutier of France, who started with a four-shot lead and wasn’t hurt by her 72, and Nasa Hataoka of Japan who had the low round of a windblown Saturday at 64.

They were at 14-under 202, setting up a final day bursting with possibilities.

Gaby Lopez of Mexico was poised to join them until a wild finish. She hit into a hazard off the tee at the par-3 16th and took double bogey. She responded with a long eagle putt on the par-5 17th. And then her approach on the 18th went left and found water down a slope so severe she could barely find a spot to place the ball without it rolling away into the hazard.

Lopez did well to escape with bogey for a 69 and was one shot behind along with Mina Harigae, who made eagle on the 17th and shot 69.

A dozen players were separated by two shots, a group that includes Lexi Thompson, who took bogey on the last hole for a 68 and still was right in the mix.

The winner gets $1.5 million, the largest prize in women’s golf, and there’s even more at stake for the LPGA Tour’s two best players this year.

Korda and Ko each have four wins – one of those was a major for Korda, along with an Olympic gold medal that doesn’t count on the LPGA. Korda has a 10-point lead in the race for player of the year, meaning Ko likely would have to win to surpass her.

“I have to win because she plays really well right now,” Ko said.

Korda felt she was struggling and losing ground until two shots did the trick.

She went for the green on the par-5 14th into the wind. This was the same hole where Friday she leaked her fairway metal just inside the hazard and made bogey. The yardage was too good for her to ignore, and she hammered a 3-wood to about 10 feet, above the hole with a sharp right-to-left break, but it was an easy birdie.

And then on the par-5 17th with the wind at her back, she hit her biggest drive of the day that left her a 9-iron she hit to 4 feet for eagle.

“That eagle definitely helped,” she said.

Ko did her damage on the front, the first three of those birdies on tough holes into the 20 mph wind, rolling in putts from the 20-foot range and making it look easy.

She holed a 10-footer for birdie on the par-3 fifth for her fourth in a row, got up-and-down from a long bunker shot on the next hole, stuffed a wedge to 6 feet on No. 7 and then capped off her big run with an 18-foot birdie on the par-3 eighth.

She briefly had the lead as Boutier settled into a string of pars. Ko said she once made eighth birdies in a row at home in South Korea and was hoping to top that. But the streak ended with a careless three-putt bogey on the ninth, and she finished with nine pars.

Ko missed good chances at both par 5s, but she’s right where she hoped to be. Most impressive about her play is the South Korean star has been dealing with a nagging injury to the inside of her left wrist since May. It hurts mostly on a full swing with the driver, and she kept it at this week because it’s the last event of the year.

“I’m doing well right now and I got a lot of birdies today – yesterday, too,” Ko said. “So I hope tomorrow will be more birdies. We’ll see what happens.”

Europe

Rory McIlroy was on the rocks late in his third round at the DP World Tour Championship.

Some cliff-edge improvisation, followed by a final-hole birdie, put him back in control.

Seeking a second straight victory to end his season, McIlroy delivered another wild finish at Jumeirah Golf Estates in shooting a 5-under 67 that left the four-time major champion with a one-stroke lead at Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Sam Horsfield bogeyed the 18th hole to shoot 69 and drop out of a share of the lead with McIlroy, who was 14 under overall in the season-closing event on the European Tour.

Collin Morikawa, still on course to become the first American to finish a season as the tour’s No. 1 player, was three shots back in a four-way share of fifth place after his round of 69.

Standing on the tee at the par-3 17th hole holding a one-stroke lead, McIlroy missed the green left and saw the ball bounce through the rough and dance along the edge of the cliffs. It eventually settled on a narrow ledge, to gasps among spectators.

McIlroy opted against taking a drop, which was the preferred choice of his caddie, Harry Diamond, and managed to clip a shot off the stone and through the green. He missed the return chip by inches, but a par was a good result given what could have happened.

“Harry was pleading with me not to hit it,” McIroy said. “He was like, ‘We can just go back and make 4 at the last.’”

McIlroy then pitched to 9 feet with his third shot – from just on the green – at the par-5 18th and holed the birdie putt which would regain the lead after Horsfield’s bogey a few minutes later.

McIlroy, who won the CJ Cup in Las Vegas last month, closed his second round on Friday with a double-bogey 7 after hitting into water at the 18th.

He made a dreadful start to his third round, too, snap-hooking a 3-wood off the first tee and making a bogey.

McIlroy responded with birdies at Nos. 2 and 3 – two of the seven he had in total.

Morikawa, playing alongside McIlroy, birdied three of his first six holes to move into a tie for the lead with his playing partner and four others. The American made par on each of his final 12 holes to slip off the pace.

“It was all over the place,” Morikawa said. “Front nine played pretty good but overall just didn’t take advantage of the par 5s.

“All three days have kind of been a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and got one more day to kind of put everything together and hopefully put a low one out there.”

Morikawa is the highest-placed of the six players who can still win the Race to Dubai and is unlikely now to need a victory to clinch the title.

Billy Horschel is second behind Morikawa in the points race but is 37th in the 52-man field, eight shots adrift of his compatriot.