PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Championship has gone by five different names since 2000. This year’s edition should be re-named The Wide Open as 16 players are within three shots heading into the final round.
Justin Leonard, Kevin Streelman and George Coetzee share the 54-hole lead at 6-under 207. Leonard is seeking his first PGA Tour win since 2008, Streelman his first win in 153 Tour starts and Coetzee is trying to cash in on a sponsor’s exemption and earn Tour status. It won’t be easy for any of them as former champion Jim Furyk leads a group of four golfers trailing by a shot, and defending champion Luke Donald and 19-year-old sensation Jordan Spieth are just two shots off the pace.
Here are 5 Things you need to know:
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1. FEELING YOUNG AGAIN: Justin Leonard is 40. Stop for a moment and let that fact soak in. The 1997 British Open champion once was the rookie sensation out of Texas, but now there are young kids calling him a mentor. When his status as a crusty veteran was mentioned, Leonard pointed to the crow’s feet forming near the eyes. He knows he’s not a kid anymore.
“When Brian Harman says, ‘Oh, I enjoyed playing in the AJGA tournament a few years ago,’ or three years ago or something, you know, then I feel a little old and my back hurts a little bit,” he said. “But when I get out there between the ropes and I don’t have some 25-year-old giving me grief, I feel pretty good.”
Leonard carded a 4-under 67 to grab a share of the lead. He has 12 victories to his credit, but none since the 2008 FedEx St. Jude Classic, a span of 122 events.
A lot has changed over the years for Leonard, and not just the color of his sideburns, which are now tinged with gray.
“I was pretty singularly focused back then. It was golf and that was about it,” Leonard said. “Now, golf’s, you know, depending on what day you ask me, it’s anywhere from fourth to sixth on my list.”
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2. ON THE MEND: Kevin Streelman isn’t sure if it was something he ate in Puerto Rico last week or the burger at the airport after missing the cut, but he suffered a case of food poisoning last Sunday. It sent him to the hospital.
“I went to a Doc-in-a-box,” he said. “I had a rough Sunday and Monday. Let’s just say I lost some weight and it took me until Thursday to feel better.”
Streelman was all smiles after a bogey-free, 6-under 65 lifted him into a share of the lead. Streelman said he struck the ball well last week, but left several putts short of the hole. He practiced hard before the tournament with his instructor, Darren May of The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., and a discovery with his putting has made all the difference.
“When I put a mirror down when I putt, I noticed my eyes were a ball or two over the ball so I took my eyes back a bit,” he said. “Sometimes a little thing like that can go a long way.”
Streelman needed just 25 putts in the third round and finished first in strokes gained putting on the day.
Streelman, who has never finished better than T-3, is seeking his first Tour win.
“This is my sixth year out here, so I’ve been in a lot of hairy situations,” he said. “I believe in the work I’ve done and getting more comfortable each year out here.”
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3. THE NEXT SOUTH AFRICAN STAR? George Coetzee didn’t set the bar too high this week. All he wanted to do was make the cut, he said. Coetzee, ranked No. 42 in the World Golf Rankings, is doing a lot better than that after a 3-under 68 in the third round.
The South African is playing this week on a sponsor’s exemption. He played just nine holes on Tuesday and walked the back-nine with fellow countryman Louis Oosthuizen.
Coetzee, 26, was even-par and flirting with the cut-line on Friday before stringing together three consecutive birdies to end his second round on a high note.
Coetzee’s strong play shouldn’t come as a big surprise. He recorded eight top-10 finishes on the European Tour last season as well as two on the Southern African Tour. His strong play early this season – four top-10s – should secure status on the European Tour for next year. So he has set his sights on the PGA Tour, and said he intends to play every Tour event through his Masters debut.
“A PGA Tour card would be nice,” Coetzee said. “I guess that’s the only thing I’ll be working on this year.”
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4. SPECIAL SHOT: Jordan Spieth had never played more than two tournaments in a row. The Tampa Bay Championship is his fourth consecutive week. You wouldn’t know it by the way he’s playing. Spieth shot a 2-under 69 and will enter the final round two shots off the lead.
If you missed it, make sure you see the highlight reel shot Jordan Spieth hit on the par-4 16th hole.
The adventure began when Spieth hooked his drive into the trees (ShotLink called it a “native area”). He only hit 5 of 13 fairways on the day. But this time it didn’t cost him. From 169 yards, he had to split a two-yard gap between 6-foot tall trees and under another limb. His caddie, Mike Greller, wanted him to punch back to the fairway, but even that looked daunting. So Spieth decided to roll the dice.
“The only debate was whether to hit 5- or 6-iron,” Spieth said.
His baby draw just missed the branches, then trundled onto the front of the green and stopped 11 feet below the hole.
“Gimme some,” Spieth said to Greller after the shot out of the woods.
“Out of 10 shots, I may hit the green once or twice,” Spieth said after the round.
To cap it off, he rolled in the putt for birdie.
“I told him if he keeps doing that,” Greller said, “I’m going to be bald by the end of the year.”
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5. DON’T COUNT THEM OUT: Defending champion Luke Donald and 2010 champion Jim Furyk both shot 67 to move into contention.
Donald climbed into the top-10, two shots off the pace after a bogey-free round.
“Could have been a really low round today,” Donald said, noting he failed to birdie any of the par-5s.
Donald, the World No. 3, has struggled early this season. He’s still looking for his first top-10 finish of the year, but said he hasn’t lost too much sleep over his recent play.
“I wasn’t too worried because I knew I was hitting the ball pretty well and it was just a matter of time,” he said.
Furyk, who lost to Donald in last year’s playoff, nearly had a share of the lead as his 7-iron approach at 18 from 156 yards rolled by the left edge of the cup and stopped 2 feet from the hole.
Furyk said his game has improved every day.
“My very first nine I hit eight greens and shot 1 over and I was scratching my head trying to figure out how in the world did that just happen,” he said.
The 42-year-old Furyk is also trying to figure out how to get back into the winner’s circle. He hasn’t won since the 2010 Tour Championship.
“It has been a while,” he admitted. “Over two years now, but it’s the same talk I heard in 2010 before I won three tournaments that year.”
Furyk seemed just as concerned about the Pro-Celebrity-Am he and his wife, Tabitha, are hosting on Monday at Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Celebrities include Reggie Jackson, Chipper Jones, and Jerome Bettis and Merrill Hoge from Furyk’s favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Justin Leonard is one of 13 Tour pros, 10 of which are in the Tampa field this week.
“He’s killing my flight tomorrow,” Furyk said of Leonard.
But if Furyk can, as he put it, fire a good one tomorrow, he could be the one delaying the plane ride home.