Justin Rose knew he was playing better than his score through the first 27 holes of the Transitions Championship. It wasn’t long before he was proven correct.
Rose ran off five birdies on the front nine Saturday and wound up with his second straight round of a 6-under 65 at Innisbrook to take a one-shot lead over Brendon de Jonge and Webb Simpson.
A 6-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole put Rose at 13-under 200 — one shot off the 54-hole tournament record — and his one-shot lead looks even more daunting considering the guys chasing him.
De Jonge and Simpson have never won on the PGA Tour. Neither have the two guys another shot behind — rookie Scott Stallings, who only made his first cut in the big leagues last week in Puerto Rico; and Gary Woodland, who lost in a playoff at the Bob Hope Classic this year.
Rose won his first two PGA Tour events last year at the Memorial and AT&T National, and knows what to expect from his emotions.
“It doesn’t mean it’s all going to go smoothly tomorrow,” Rose said. “You have to be ready for whatever happens. But at least I kind of am aware of the ups and downs, and the things I’m going to face. And I think that maybe it’s a lot easier to deal with.”
Then again, even consecutive 65s is not enough to feel comfortable on the Copperhead Course.
Simpson, whose wife recently gave birth to their first child, kept pace with Rose for much of the day until dropping shots on two of the tough par 3s on the back nine. He still had a third straight 67.
De Jonge earned a spot in the final group with a steady round of 66.
Nine players were separated by only three shots going into the final round, and while most of them don’t have Rose’s winning experience, there is a name that is hard to ignore. Nick Watney, coming off a World Golf Championship title last week at Doral, had seven birdies in his round of 65 and was in the group at 10-under 203 with Brandt Snedeker, who shot a 67.
Garrett Willis and Chris Couch, the co-leaders after the second round, each shot 70 to fall back, although they were still in the mix.
Sergio Garcia finally made a bogey in America this year — it’s his first PGA Tour event since last August — and then made four more in a round of 72 that most likely left him too far behind. He was six shots back.
PGA Champion Martin Kaymer, the No. 1 player in the world, had a 71 and was nine shots behind.
Rose was closer to the cut line than the top of the leaderboard halfway through his second round until he ran off five birdies on the back nine of Innisbrook and wound up with a 65. He had five birdies on his next nine — the front nine Saturday — to take the lead.
“First 27 holes of the tournament, I had to be really patient,” he said. “I knew I was playing well and wasn’t getting much out of it. Obviously, the next combined 18 went really hot. But this is a golf course that it’s easy to be patient on, really, in terms of you hit in the middle of the green, you two-putt for par, you know you’re not being lapped by the rest of the field.
“It’s not Disney from that type of scoring perspective.”
Watney went from feeling flat on Friday to feeling fresh in the third round, and it showed. He revved up the gallery behind the 17th green with a 10-foot birdie, and made a long two-putt across the 18th for his 65.
“I’ve done all I can do. I’m really excited for tomorrow,” Watney said. “I’m just going to take a lot from last week. I’m definitely riding some momentum. I just feel good with my game and I’m feeling more and more comfortable.”
Woodland is an intriguing contender.
He is the latest pure athlete to join the PGA Tour, cut along the lines of Dustin Johnson, only less polished. He spent his freshman year playing basketball, saw a greater future in golf and transferred to Kansas. That’s when he started facing his first real competition, but after shoulder surgery last year, Woodland is starting to progress quickly.
He lost in the three-man playoff at the Hope, and has been steady on a Copperhead Course he has never seen. Woodland, one of the biggest hitters on tour, decided to go conservative and hit mostly 2-iron off the tee. It’s working out for him.
The surprise is Stallings.
He missed every cut on the West Coast Swing and finally earned a paycheck last week — just over $11,000 — when he tied for 42nd in the Puerto Rico Open. His round featured a hole-in-one on No. 8, the third-toughest hole at Innisbrook, and he followed that with five birdies on the back nine.
Stallings received a sponsor’s exemption, mainly because he and Kenny Perry have the same agent, and Perry has an endorsement relationship with the title sponsor. It was a great break for a guy who has low status in his rookie year, and he’s running with it.
“I was surprisingly relaxed,” Stallings said. “I knew that I had nothing to lose. It was basically play well this week, and take advantage of the opportunity or if I didn’t play well, I was going to sit back and wait until I got in toward after the U.S. Open, because that’s when the tournaments would start opening up and the fields would get a little bigger.”