NAPA, Calif. – Facing a putt from the fringe behind the 16th green, Sang-Moon Bae appeared to be seconds away from relinquishing a lead he had held for much of the afternoon at the Frys.com Open.
Thirty minutes and seven shots later, he left the course with a four-stroke advantage.
The whirlwind finish to Bae’s third-round 65 turned what appeared would be a wide-open finale at Silverado Resort & Spa into one in which the South Korean has a decided advantage.
After beginning the day in second place, Bae quickly moved to the top of the standings with birdies on Nos. 2 and 3. He added three more circles on Nos. 4-6, all without making a putt longer than 12 feet.
“Five birdies in a row was really fun,” Bae said. “I read every break on the green. It was a really easy game.”
Bae now sits on the precipice of his second PGA Tour win. While his victory at the 2013 HP Byron Nelson Championship seemed like it could be a turning point, the 17 subsequent months haven’t gone according to plan for the 28-year-old.
Bae’s record since that maiden win in Dallas last May: 36 starts, 18 missed cuts, zero top-10 finishes.
“I couldn’t play well after the Byron,” said Bae, who now uses TPC Four Seasons as his American base after winning there last summer. “I don’t know, I felt like much improved … but just the results, the results weren’t good.”
For being in position to end the drought Sunday, Bae can thank his play down the stretch on Saturday. The final three holes at Silverado are designed for late-round fireworks, with a pair of par 5s sandwiched around a short par 4 that became drivable for many in the field when the tees were moved up for the third round.
No. 16 was the third-easiest hole during the third round, but Bae had to scramble after an errant approach found a hazard left of the green.
“I hit a little pull on the second (shot), so it was next to the green, but it was really way left than from what I thought,” he said.
After two poor chips, Bae was left with a 15-foot par putt from the fringe that, had he missed, would have dropped him back into a tie for the lead. Instead, he holed the putt – reacting with a fist pump, rare display of emotion – and promptly pulled out his driver on the short 17th.
His tee shot barely carried the bunker that guards the front of the green, then caught the edge of a swale and curled to within 6 feet of the hole. He converted the short eagle putt.
“I hit a little fade, so it looked good to me,” he said. “That pin position was really good for me. I hit a really solid drive and a pretty solid, high shot that was a little bit lucky, too.”
Bae then rolled in a 14-foot putt for birdie on the final hole to stretch his lead over Zac Blair from three shots to four, playing the final four holes in 4 under. Despite the torrid finish, he pointed to the single par in that stretch as the turning point in his round.
“I made a really important par putt. It was more than a birdie putt,” he said. “It really woke me up, so it’s a refreshment. It (was) a pretty big one.”
Bae carries a 54-hole lead into the final round for the first time. Proven winners Matt Kuchar and Martin Laird sit in a tie for third, along with Brooks Koepka, who nearly won this event a year ago.
The closest player to Bae, though, will also be the most unproven. Not that that’s a problem for him.
“I feel prepared,” said Blair, 24, who is playing in just his second PGA Tour event. “Just got to go out and do the same thing, hit some good shots and stay in the right frame of mind.”
Bae insists he’s not thinking about the end result.
“It’s a good score. Four-shot lead makes me feel a little comfortable for Sunday playing, but I don’t think about a win,” he said. “Just play my game.”