Love at first sight. You don’t need to channel Cupid to know it probably has happened to everyone with a pulse. We say this not because it’s the week of Valentine’s Day. We say this because Bill Haas again is on top at Riviera Country Club.
A year ago, Haas won a Northern Trust Open playoff here against Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. Now it looks like an encore might be in order, for Haas has a three-stroke lead entering Sunday’s final round.
And so Haas was asked after his Saturday special 64 exactly what is behind his magnetic force field with The Riv. As for his answer, let’s just say some romantics don’t rattle as many compliments about their eye’s apple.
“I like everything about it,” the 2011 FedEx Cup champion said. “The golf course, the grass, just how it’s an old-school-style golf course. Walking in the locker room, seeing the pictures of all those champions on the wall. It’s just got a great feel about it.”
Thing is, Haas didn’t have a great track record here before. In six starts previous to winning, he had never had a top-10 finish. His best showings were a T-12 in 2011 and T-22 four years earlier.
Still, he said he put it on his schedule because, well, it’s fun to play for all those reasons above.
And he certainly had fun Saturday. His 7-under round, in which he putted only 24 times, was the best score of the day by three strokes over Stewart Cink’s lone 67. Riviera played firmer and faster in the third round than it had the first two days, and as a result was more difficult.
In making five birdies and a chip-in eagle at the short and famous par-4 10th, Haas changed the complexion of the tournament that clearly has the best PGA Tour field of the year, what with 18 of the top 30 in the world entered.
Saturday began with the top of the scoreboard clumped, what with 20 players within five strokes, including plenty of heavyweights. Haas, though, cause separation, and now only eight are set apart by five strokes or less.
The pursuers are led by major championship winners Charl Schwartzel and Webb Simpson, the latter a Wake Forest graduate like Haas. They are tied for second, three back at 9-under 204 and one ahead of former World No. 1 Luke Donald.
Numbers geeks or close observers probably could have seen something like this coming out of Haas, for not only does he have The Riv thing going for him, but he also arrived here having tied for ninth (Farmers Insurance Open) and sixth (Phoenix Open) in his last two starts.
A simple swing key is behind the current surge, and it involves trying to hit the ball high.
“My biggest flaw is I don’t turn and I kind of get ahead of (the ball with his head and upper body coming down),” the four-time Tour winner said. “You’ll see it a few times, hopefully not tomorrow, but I hit some right shots.”
His remedy involves visualizing a specific piece of nature. The key certainly has worked here, for he is tied for first in greens in regulation.
“On the range, I try to hit a lot of shots high, like pretend there’s a tree in front of me,” he said. “If you’re hitting a shot high, you can’t get in front of it. It helps you stay behind the ball a little bit.”
Haas, of course, doesn’t have far to go when he’s out of kilter. His coach, Bill Harmon, often caddies for him. His father, Jay, won nine times on Tour. His great uncle, Bob Goalby, won the 1968 Masters.
The trickle-down success, of course, started with Goalby.
“It’s a big deal in our family,” Haas said. “I love telling people that my great uncle is a Masters champion. That’s how my dad got started and that’s the reason I play the game.”
Haas won one of the two previous times he led after 54 holes. So he knows the boring but vital drill: Stay in the moment. Don’t let emotions negatively affect him. Get off to a good start.
Last year he had only one top-10 finish after winning here. The lay psychologist in him understands the reasons behind the slide.
“Just not wanting to play poorly,” he said. “And it snowballs on you and you play poorly because of that and you start doubting yourself. I think my biggest thing is worrying about the result more than focusing on the task at hand and letting the results just happen.”
We’ll soon find out how well he puts that into practice at one of his favorite playgrounds.