Kevin Streelman figured a good round Saturday would at least get him in the mix at the Tampa Bay Championship. It wound up giving him a share of the lead.
Adam Scott and K.J. Choi led a surprising retreat at Innisbrook, allowing for a wild game of musical chairs at the top of the leaderboard with nothing remotely close to being settled going into the final round. Sixteen players were separated by only three shots.
Streelman finished his 6-under 65 nearly three hours before the last group walked off the 18th green. Justin Leonard ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch around the turn and had the lead to himself before a bogey from the bunker on the 15th. He had a 67. George Coetzee bounced back from his lone bogey with a birdie on the rowdy 17th hole, where Hooters waitresses serve wings in the grandstands. That gave him a 68.
They were tied at 6-under 207, more evidence that the Copperhead course is perhaps the most complete test in Florida. Even on a warm, breezy afternoon, it was easier to go backward that to move away from the field.
Scott and Choi were proof of that.
Scott had a two-putt birdie on the opening hole to briefly take the lead, and that was the highlight of his day. He three-putted from about 15 feet for bogey on third, made bogey with a wedge in his hand on the par-5 fifth hole and stumbled to a 76. Choi, who also was one shot out of the lead, didn’t make a birdie in his round of 76.
They still were only five shots out of the lead.
Shawn Stefani, the 31-year-old rookie who led by one, had a 74 and still was only two shots behind. His day could have been much worse except for a tee shot that caromed off a tree and into the fairway on the second hole, and a big hook on the third that hit the tire of a golf cart and stayed in play. Instead of hitting his third shot from the tee, he could reach the green for a two-putt par.
The group one shot out of the lead included 2010 winner Jim Furyk (67) and Ben Kohles (69), the Virginia grad who last summer went from college to two straight wins on the Web.com Tour to earn a spot in the big leagues.
Defending champion Luke Donald had a 67 and was only two shots behind at 4-under 209, along with 19-year-old Jordan Spieth of Texas, who is coming off a runner-up finish in Puerto Rico and can be set for the year on the PGA Tour the rest of the year depending on how he plays Sunday.
He looks as if he’s good enough to win.
The group at 3 under included Harris English, in a tie for the lead on the front nine until he stumbled to a 73, and Sergio Garcia, who never looked happy and sounded even worse on his way to a 72.
”I wanted to get to 6 under today,” Streelman said. ”I had that number in my mind to at least have a chance going into tomorrow, so I was happy to get there.”
He had no idea at the time he would all the way to the top of the leaderboard.
Streelman is among eight players in the top 12 who have never won on the PGA Tour, and that would come with an invitation to the Masters. He recalls having a chance and trying not to lose, making a bunch of pars that cost him.
”I’m going to stay aggressive,” he said.
Even so, this is a course where it’s best to attack only when it makes sense. Leonard did that on the ninth hole. Realizing the pin was not tucked on the side, he laid back off the tee with a 3-wood, and then hit 6-iron into 10 feet for a birdie. He also got up-and-down from a front bunker on the 11th, and then hit 6-iron to 8 feet on the 12th. His only regret was missing a 5-foot birdie on the 17th that would have given him the outright lead.
Not that it would have mattered all that much.
”I looked over at one point on 12 and knew I was tied for the lead at that time, and when I birdied, I figured I was in the lead and I didn’t look at another board after that,” Leonard said. ”Tomorrow I won’t play a whole lot of attention, either, until the last few holes and see if it might change my strategy at all.”
Spieth is in a great spot, and not just the leaderboard.
He had no status this year after turning pro, but he had two good finishes on the Web.com Tour that has left him about $4,500 short of securing status. He was thinking about sticking with the Web.com Tour until deciding to honor the exemption he was given to the Puerto Rico Open, and that worked out well.
”My focus had been on the Web.com,” he said. ”Now my focus is out there. It’s a nice change.”
But he’s thinking more about the top of the leaderboard than how much money he needs to earn this week, and he has just as good of a chance as anyone. Spieth showed his shot making with a 6-iron out of the trees that led to 12-foot birdie on the 16th.
”That wasn’t a smart shot,” he said with a smile.
Coetzee is part of a group of young South Africans who have worked their way into the top 50 in the world, and he’ll make his Masters debut next month. The best part about a chance to win is getting his PGA Tour card.
He was flirting with the cut line with nine holes to play Friday until a 32 on the back nine, and then a solid round today. Coetzee is still finding his way in America, uncertain about the courses and not knowing the faces that go with the names.
But he figures that golf is the same all over the world, and his outlook summed up the state of this tournament.
”Doesn’t matter where you play, everybody still gets to the golf course,” he said, ”and nobody knows what’s going to happen.”