PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Ashes fell from the sky, smoke filled the air and a thick haze hovered over PGA National.
Some might have found breathing difficult at the Honda Classic.
Camilo Villegas wasn’t among them.
Once threatening to run away after a sizzling start, Villegas came back to the pack on his back nine and wound up rallying to take a three-shot lead over Nathan Green and Vijay Singh after three rounds. Villegas is at 11-under 199, so even after making three bogeys in a five-hole stretch in what became a round of 67, he’ll be the one to catch on Sunday.
“I’m sleeping in my own bed this week, which is always nice,” said Villegas, one of many tour players who call South Florida home. “I’ve been nice and relaxed. So we’ll show up tomorrow the same way and try to play some good golf.”
Green (67) and Singh (69) are at 8 under, while George McNeill (66) and Matt Every (69) were tied for fourth at 6 under. Anthony Kim, who shared the 36-hole lead with Villegas, shot 73 and wound up six shots back entering the final round, tied with Michael Connell (69).
All the talk before the tournament was about the difficulty of the course, before conversations on Thursday shifted to the gusting breezes and how they left players guessing.
On Saturday, a controlled burn left its mark on the Honda.
Earth, wind and fire, indeed.
A planned fire in Jonathan Dickinson State Park, about 14 miles north of PGA National Resort and Spa, made an already tough course even tougher. The wind shifted a bit after the fire started, sending thick plumes of smoke, ash and haze down directly toward the course. Play wasn’t halted, though the day was clearly affected.
“It’s not great, but everyone’s dealing with it,” said Green, an asthmatic who once worked in a crematorium his parents manage. “It’s strange when you’re looking down, hitting your putt and you’ve got ashes sort of going past your ball. We had that a few holes in, I think on 13 and 14. It’s different. I don’t think guys are really worried about it. You can just sort of smell it and taste it.”
Singh shot his third straight round in the 60s, a 69 to keep him in the mix for what would be his first win since capturing the FedExCup in 2008. Also with a third-straight sub-70 round was Sam Saunders, who shot his third straight 69 and is tied for 10th, eight shots behind Villegas.
His coach isn’t expected to be with him on Sunday.
By the way, Saunders’ coach is his grandfather, Arnold Palmer. “The King” knows that if he’s in the gallery on Sunday, the buzz he’ll create – on a course redesigned by Jack Nicklaus – might take away from what his grandkid is trying to do inside the ropes, so Saunders thinks he’ll stay away.
“Hopefully, someday, and I’ve said this many times before, that my game will become good enough and I’ll become a good enough player that I’ll be known as Sam Saunders and Arnold Palmer’s grandson,” Saunders said. “I think I’m getting there, but right now, it’s fine. If I’m Arnold Palmer’s grandson, that’s kind of the deal. I understand that.”
Saunders has drawn his share of attention before, first playing as a 14-year-old non-competing marker with Peter Jacobsen at Bay Hill – Arnie’s tournament – and then caddying for his grandfather at Palmer’s final Masters.
Now, he’s just trying to play his way into some spotlight. He’s in the Honda on a sponsor’s exemption.
“I’m not out there just trying to eke out a good round,” Saunders said. “I’m watching that leaderboard and I see myself getting up there and I’m thinking about winning this thing. I’m not really thinking, ‘Oh, I want a good finish.’ I’m trying to get myself in position where I can win. And tomorrow, if the course plays tough, you never know.”
Villegas has tamed it so far.
He made four birdies on the front side – including the par-4 6th hole, the tournament’s toughest this week, for the second straight day. And after a bogey at the 10th seemed to derail him a bit, Villegas rolled in a 20-footer for birdie on the next hole, punching the air as the putt dropped.
Villegas had only four top-10 finishes in 21 tour starts last season, after winning back-to-back starts in September 2008 and thinking he was ready for a big breakthrough.
Maybe this is the year. So far in 2010, he was third at Match Play and then tied for eighth last week at the Phoenix Open.
“We have our good years, average years and bad years,” Villegas said. “I decided to look at the good side of it and work on those little things that I needed to get better, and show up this year a little more excited to be out here.”
A win and a $1.008 million check Sunday would make him plenty excited.