LA QUINTA, Calif. – The answer to the question seems slap-in-the-face obvious: Of course players want to hold the lead heading into the final round of a tournament. Sure, there’s the added pressure and the sleepless night and the big target on the first tee, but at least there’s the built-in cushion.
Except at the Humana Challenge, that’s not always a good thing.
Last year, Patrick Reed led by a touchdown heading into the final round, then held on for dear life as four players directly behind him shot 65 or better. He won by two after a Sunday 71.
The year prior, Scott Stallings staked himself to a five-shot lead, only to come back to the field when his game briefly went AWOL. He didn’t even make the three-way playoff after a final-round 70.
So, at the event that surrenders the most birdies each year, we ask: Is it better to lead or pursue?
“I guess you could look at it both ways,” co-leader Justin Thomas said, “but regardless, you’re going to have to make a lot of birdies. That’s just how it is here.”
Good luck picking the winner off this board.
When all of the contenders marched into the media center Saturday at PGA West, they figured they’d be a few shots back and in pursuit heading into the final round. Not anymore.
With Matt Kuchar’s late collapse during the third round, there are four players tied for the lead, four others one shot back and 15 guys within three.
This event doesn’t always favor the frontrunner. This time, there isn’t one.
Birdie-fests like the Humana wouldn’t work every week on the PGA Tour, but those who like pyrotechnics will really enjoy the swan song here at PGA West’s Palmer Private. Ending its relationship with the event after this year, the Private always produces great drama on the closing stretch with a variety of risk-reward holes:
• The 15th is dainty par 3 with a kidney-shaped green.
• The 16th is a short par 4 that rewards strong wedge play.
• The 17th is a gut-check par 3 that requires only a wedge, but is one of the most intimidating shots players will face all year.
• And the 18th, well, the home hole is a very reachable par 5 that either crowns potential champions (David Duval, 1999) or crushes them (Stallings, 2013).
Of the four co-leaders, only Bill Haas has experience holding a 54-hole lead. The 2010 champion has converted only two of those five opportunities into a victory, and he was so concerned about how he’d fare this week after four months off that he told his wife that he was going to be in trouble.
Not exactly. At 17-under 199, he is tied with two-time heart transplant recipient Erik Compton, journeyman Michael Putnam and Thomas, the stud rookie.
Haas fractured his left wrist when he fell down a flight of stairs last April and went winless for the first time in five years. Per doctor’s orders, he sat out the past four months, skipping range work and playing only corporate outings. Rust or not, he’s in position for his sixth career title.
“I was unsure how I’d be able to score,” he said. “So obviously very pleased to be anywhere near the lead.”
A victory by Compton would not just be a remarkable golf story, but one of the all-time great sports stories.
Making his 113th PGA Tour start, Compton will soon learn how his body handles the rigors and stresses of a lead on the final day. The 35-year-old tied for second at last year’s U.S. Open, but he was already out of it, five back after 54 holes.
“Confidence,” Compton said, when asked what’s changed since Pinehurst. “Probably more at ease with myself and not really feeling like I have to prove anything. Confidence is huge in this game.”
Belief isn’t lacking for Thomas, the former Alabama star who has drawn favorable comparisons to fellow 21-year-old Jordan Spieth. At last week’s Sony Open, Thomas shared the halfway lead but backed up with a pair of weekend 70s. He was more patient Saturday, carding a 4-under 68 in windier conditions.
“Some days you’re not going to have it,” he said of his experience in Honolulu, “and it’s just a matter of what you make of it."
Kuchar has his own self-reflection to do after frittering away three strokes on the last four holes, the last coming on the par-5 finishing hole, when his 3-hybrid didn’t cut and found the water over the green. To make matters worse, he missed a 5-footer for par.
“Regardless of what happened (on 18), I was still going to have to make a lot of birdies tomorrow,” he said.
Don’t worry, Kooch. At the Humana, it’s usually no lead, no problem.