By DOUG FERGUSON – AP Golf Author
PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Davis Riley made three birdies from difficult spots to close out the front nine, then rolled on Saturday until he had a 9-under-62, a tournament record and a two-shot lead in the Valspar Championship.
And there’s a Masters invite on the horizon for Riley, a 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie.
He played in front of the largest gallery in steamy Innisbrook, most of whom were there to watch the other Alabama grads mate. Justin Thomas did his part with a third straight 66, which would have set a tournament record in any other year.
Riley stole the show with a creative chip-and-run out of the rough and under a tree and with a 70-foot bunker shot that spontaneously crashed the cup in 9th place. That was two of his nine birdies on the Copperhead course – he only had 20 putts for the round – which helped him turn a five-stroke deficit into a two-stroke lead.
“It’s always fun to play with a good buddy and Justin is obviously one of the best players in the world,” Riley said. “There was definitely a level of comfort for that.”
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Riley was 18-under-195, breaking the tournament record last set a year ago by Sam Burns by four, who remains very strong in the mix to win back-to-back.
Matthew NeSmith, who set the 36-hole record and led the turn by four shots, made his first bogey of the week in 10th place and dropped three more shots. He threw in enough birdies and a solid par save on the 18th for a 69.
Riley and NeSmith will be in the last group on Sunday.
Thomas and Burns (67) were three shots down and have winning experience. Adam Hadwin, who won his only PGA Tour title five years ago at Innisbrook, shot 70 and was five shots behind.
NeSmith had reason to wonder what had happened. He did everything right, with birdies on the par 5s, a 15-foot birdie putt on the #7, and an 8-foot birdie on the ninth to make it 18 under.
But he was starting to show some cracks in his iron game, going into a bunker on the 10th, long on a pair of par 3s and hitting a bad chip that resulted in a bogey on the 16th.
Still, he had a chance to win for the first time and earn a trip to the Masters, where his father used to work as a part-time caddy.
“This is what I dreamed of as a little kid, getting out here and playing in the last group,” NeSmith said. “On the PGA Tour, the last group is the coolest thing in the world and to have that opportunity and play well was great. And I was just trying to enjoy the walk. It’s hard. It’s obviously very hard. But I did a good job.
“The goal was to finish 18 holes and enjoy the walk and we did both today so I’m pretty happy.”
Thomas has been more than a year since his last win at The Players Championship and has remained in the hunt amid the Riley show. He made a hard par save to close the front nine and equalized Riley with a 31 on the back nine to stay three behind.
Even Thomas was caught up in Riley’s performance.
“That was really impressive,” said Thomas. “It’s a big moment for a rookie — it doesn’t matter who — and he handled it like a rock star and made 9 under look very, very easy except for a crazy chip-in there on 9.”
The Copperhead course played a little harder with the strongest breeze of the week on the tree-lined lot. Even three days of sunshine couldn’t make the greens too firm and players still aimed and scored low. The average score was 69.7.
Xander Schauffele had a 68 and was in the big group with 11 under 202, probably all too far behind to make up that much ground.
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