LAS VEGAS –– Down on the famed Vegas Strip, some 12-15 miles away, you could almost hear Jimmy Buffett tuning his guitar and prepping to sing about Margaritaville. But at TPC Summerlin, as a cool dusk settled over Saturday’s third round of the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, it was still Birdieville.
Six more went into Webb Simpson’s column, so now he has 22 against just three bogeys over three days. At 19-under 194, Simpson, who shot 4-under 67 Saturday, has the 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour tournament for the fifth time.
If this 54-hole lead will feel slightly different, it’s because Simpson will be trying to hold off a PGA Tour rookie whom he has known since boyhood days in Raleigh, N.C. Chesson Hadley is his name. As for his game, it’s been quite explosive each of the last three days, Hadley’s third-round 67 highlighted by a hole-out from 98 yards for eagle at the par-5 16th.
How generous were scoring opportunities in absolute vintage conditions – cloudless sky, no wind, firm-running fairways and smooth-putting greens? Consider that John Senden started the day just four back, shot level par, and fell from T-2 to T-11.
That’s because at the Shriners, if you’re not pushing forward, your cruising backward, which leads us into 5 Things you need to know from the third round:
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1. RALEIGH REUNION: The meeting went something like this: Young junior golfer looks up, sees a junior golfer two years older, more heralded, and is a bit in awe when all of a sudden the older kid sticks out his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Webb. Let’s play.”
Hey, it’s the Readers Digest version, but Hadley figures you get the gist of that first meeting at a golf course in their hometown.
He was a youngster in Raleigh, two years younger than Simpson, but Hadley respected so much about the older boy. And through the years, guess what? That respect has increased exponentially, which is why Sunday’s fourth round will be an unforgettable experience for Hadley.
“I’ll be more nervous playing with (Simpson) than anything else,” Hadley said.
Starting his sixth year on the PGA Tour, Simpson is an established star, a U.S. Open among his three wins, No. 24 in the world, and a participant in a Ryder Cup and two Presidents Cups.
Hadley? He’s a PGA Tour rookie, who has now played 10 rounds at this level. But his 11th? It will be played beside Simpson, the two of them in the final pairing of this $6m tournament, with $1m to the winner.
Simpson, 28, shaking off a bogey at the par-4 11th, birdied four of the next five holes to shoot 67 and maintain the four-stroke lead with which he began the day. Hadley, 26, made his miscue early, a double at the par-4 third, but played 6 under the rest of the way, also shot 67, and will start the day four behind his hometown friend.
You bet there will be warm pleasantries exchanged at the first tee. “Nicest kid in the world. I’m glad he’s out here on Tour,” Simpson said.
And then? “Natural instincts will take over,” Hadley said. “It’s just golf.”
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2. CHASING BIRDIES, NOT STARS: As if the zillions of neon lights aren’t enough of a spectacle out here in Glitter Gulch, Friday evening offered the chance to see the Hunter’s Full Moon, a penumbral lunar eclipse. A reporter sought out Jimmy Walker for his reaction, to no avail.
“My astronomy has taken a back seat this week,” said Walker, an avid, though novice, astronomer.
But remember, he is very much a professional when it comes to golf and Walker drove that point home once again with a brilliant third round at TPC Summerlin, his torrid play remaining the storyline to this very young 2013-14 season.
“Got a couple of putts to fall and just kept hitting it solid,” said Walker, who offset a bogey at the par-4 second with eight birdies over his next 16. With a 7-under 64, Walker finished 54 holes at 10-under 203. While he’s nine off the pace, it’s the latest proof that he’s enjoying this new, wrap-around season.
Walker rallied to earn his first PGA Tour win a week ago at the Frys.com and he’ll enter Sunday in a tie for 15th. While a second straight win is unlikely, Walker is playing beautifully at a most opportune time. He’ll move on to play the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, then the HSBC Champions in China.
At that point, he will stop and take a break, choosing to get away until the Hyundai Tournament of Champions Jan. 3-6.
A well-deserved break, that is, because Walker most likely will have accomplished the goal of these October/November tournaments to the wrap-around season – get off to a fast start in all the standings of importance, FedEx Cup, Ryder Cup, and money.
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3. VEGAS IN VEGAS: It’s more than the fact that his shoulder is healthier, stronger, and capable of doing what he asks it do in the golf swing. It’s that with the improved health “my confidence is back,” said Jhonattan Vegas.
“Things are getting better.”
Having been sidelined since having surgery on his left shoulder in February, Vegas returned at the Frys.com Open last week and missed the cut, but no worries this week. Posting a third-round 68, Vegas is at 10 under through 54 holes. More notable is the fact that his power has returned, as witnessed by the way he’s played the par 5s in 7-under.
“I’m as long as I used to be,” said the 29-year-old from Venezuela who took the Tour by storm in early 2011 when he won the Bob Hope Classic. He finished 54th in the FedEx Cup that year, but slumped to 126th in 2012, which is when the left shoulder started nagging him.
He played just three tournaments in 2013, missed the cut in each, and said enough was enough. What followed the surgery was eight months of rehab and while “I’m not 100 percent,” Vegas appears to be pleased with the ways things are going.
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4. FEAST AT THE 15TH: Sean O’Hair is likely OK with the way the 15th hole has been set up this year. It played 301 yards Thursday, 287 in Round 3, and each time it has taken O’Hair just two tidy strokes.
He slammed a driver to 6 feet in the first round, but needed just a 3-wood to reach yesterday, following that with a 44-foot eagle roll.
Through three rounds, the field had made six eagles at 15, O’Hair the only one with more than one.
Certainly, the middle holes on TPC Summerlin’s back nine have appealed to O’Hair. He’s played the par-5 13th, par-4 14th, and par-4 15th in 8-under, so he’s just 4-under on the other 15 holes.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: They blitzed the place on the first day, but since then J.J. Henry and James Driscoll have been rather quiet. Henry, who shot 11-under 60 Thursday to seize the lead, has followed it with 71-70. Now at 12-under, joint fifth, but a whopping seven back. Driscoll, after opening with a 63, has played 36 holes in 1 over to crash down the leaderboard, now in a share of 38th. . . . Modest stuff, perhaps, but Tyrone Van Aswegen has never missed a cut on the PGA Tour. He finished T-40 in his debut a week ago at the Frys.com Open and made the cut on the number at TPC Summerlin. A third-round 71, however, kept him lodged well down the list, at T-63. . . . Defending champion Ryan Moore posted his third straight sub-70 score, a 69, but at 12-under, he’s tied for fifth. . . . There were two eagles at the 372-yard, par-4 seventh. William McGirt holed out from 159 yards, Morgan Hoffman from 114. . . . For 54 holes, there have been 41 eagles. . . . Through 54 holes there have been 13 rounds at 64 or better.