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.”
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