LOS ANGELES – Aaron Baddeley played 22 holes Saturday in just about every kind of weather, and it hardly mattered. He hit just about every shot where he was aiming and wound up with a one-shot lead in the Northern Trust Open.
Baddeley birdied the 18th hole in the chill of the morning for a 69, then ran off three straight birdies around the turn just as the afternoon rain arrived. That led to a 4-under 67, giving him a 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour for the first time in five years.
Now he just has to hold off a couple of guys nearly old enough to be his father.
Fred Couples and his 51-year-old aching back managed well enough in the cold and rain. Couples made only one blunder when he chipped too strong off the back of the 10th green for his lone bogey. He shot a 1-under 70 and was one shot behind as he tries to become the oldest PGA Tour winner in more than 35 years.
Kevin Na, who grew up in these parts and first came to Riviera as an 11-year-old in 1995, plodded along to a 67. He also was one back.
Vijay Singh turns 48 on Tuesday and is starting to play much younger. In the worst slump of his career, Singh felt like the world’s best putter in the third round as he turned in a 67 and was only two shots behind.
Singh last won in 2008 at the Deutsche Bank Championship on his way to the FedEx Cup title.
“I’m really fired up for tomorrow,” Singh said. “I’m in a good position to win tomorrow, so we’ll see what happens.”
Baddeley, winless in four years, is back with his old swing coach and starting to see some results. He was at 10-under 203 and will be in the final group Sunday with Couples and Na.
“It’s been a little bit of time since I’ve been in this position, so I’m excited for the challenge,” Baddeley said. “I’m excited to test out the new action, and I feel good. I feel like it’s going to be fun tomorrow.”
Baddeley was among those who went to the “Stack and Tilt” method taught by Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer, then decided to go back to his Australian coach, Dale Lynch.
“It’s funny because I feel like I’ve been actually making a lot of progress, but it was never really showing on the scoreboard,” Baddeley said. “So these last few weeks have really been nice to start to put some scores on the board. This week has been really nice.”
And there was one nice stretch in particular.
It started with a tough approach to the par-4 eighth, where Baddeley had to be careful not to be too aggressive and run off the slope on the other side of the pin. He put it to within 8 feet for birdie, then holed a 30-foot birdie putt on the ninth. He nearly drove the 10th green, leaving him a delicate pitch to tap-in range for his third straight birdie.
One of his few mistakes was a tee shot that led to an adventure through the trees on the par-5 11th. It looked as though he would escape with par when he hit a wedge out of the rough to 4 feet, but he missed the putt.
He finished with seven straight pars.
Ryan Moore (70) and John Senden (71) were at 6-under 207, while Stewart Cink (71) and Robert Allenby (71) were part of the large group another shot behind.
Defending champion Steve Stricker made the cut on the number, then had a 66. That still left him seven shots behind. Stricker is still closer than Phil Mickelson, who struggled to a 74 and was at 2-over 215.
The gallery was with Couples, who first won at Riviera in 1990 when his hair was brown and he ambled along with California cool. Couples still has the cool factor to go with his graying hair, and he still has enough game.
He narrowly missed a 15-foot eagle putt on the opening hole. He made only one other birdie on the par-5 11th, and otherwise settled for pars except for his lone bogey. It was enough, though, to keep him in the game.
“I hung in there,” Couples said. “I didn’t hit the ball exceptionally well, but I hit it solid, which is what I said I needed to do. I just didn’t make enough birdies. So tomorrow I have to come out and fight and see what happens.”
Couples was one of the players Na wanted to watch when he came out to Riviera with his father in 1995. Now he will be playing with him in the final group, a chance for Na to get his first victory.
And it would be a special one at that.
Not only does he have childhood memories of Riviera, his father was diagnosed with leukemia last year and has returned home to his native South Korea for treatment.
“My mother is going to Korea next week,” he said. “And hopefully, I can give her a trophy so she can give it to him.”