Despite struggling with his driver off the tee, Chris Kirk shot a five-under 65 to take a one-shot lead over fellow University of Georgia alumnus Harris English and PGA Tour rookie Will Wilcox heading into the final round of the Sony Open.
Kirk made the most out of his round on Saturday at Waialae Country Club, which included a nine-footer for birdie on no. 18 to narrowly separate him from the clustered leaderboard. There are 26 players within five shots of the lead.
“Today was a nice day to get out with 5-under for sure,” said Kirk, who is 12-under through 54 holes. “I didn’t hit the ball quite as well as I have the last few days, but was able to make some really good par saves on the front and convert my birdies when I had good chances and just that continued throughout the day, thankfully.
“I had one of those days yesterday where I feel like I was playing great, and it’s funny to say that, shot 6under the first day and 5-under today and 1-under yesterday, and I feel like I played better today than I did either of the other two days. I guess that’s just the way golf goes sometimes.”
Kirk has a solid record as a frontrunner. He has held at least a share of the 54-hole lead twice and went on to win both times. However, with the tightly-packed leaderboard, Kirk, who is already a winner this season when he captured the McGladrey Classic last fall, will try to stay away from checking out the scoreboards around the golf course in Sunday’s final round.
“When it’s so close like that, everybody is going to be making some birdies here and there but making some bogeys, and that’s just kind of the way it goes on this golf course,” said the 28-year-old whose wife just gave birth to their second child three weeks ago.
“So I probably won’t look at leaderboards as much as I normally would. A lot of courses I think lend themselves to you need to know what your position is going into any given hole, but out here I don’t think that’s really the case. They’re just so volatile with guys making birdies and bogeys. So I’ll just probably try to keep my head down and make as many birdies as I can.”
While Kirk didn’t drive the ball well on Saturday, that’s something he’s been working on with his new instructor Scott Hamilton, whom also teaches Boo Weekley, Brendon Todd, Matt Every, among others.
“So far we’ve mostly worked on my driver swing,” said Kirk. “I didn’t drive it as good today as I have the last few days, but I drove it really, really great yesterday. And mostly, we’ve just made changes in my setup. Nothing crazy, but that’s the main thing we’ve worked on so far.
“(Driving) has been my main weakness over the last few years.”
Before Kirk started working with Hamilton, his teacher was Davis Love III’s brother, Mark Love. Kirk first had Hamilton look at his swing at the Deutsche Bank Championship last September, but they didn’t officially start their relationship until the last two-three months. Kirk emphasized that he would remain friends with Love and see him on occasion, but he just needed a change.
“I was frustrated this past year,” he said. “I felt like my iron play and my short game and my putting were so good all year and (driving) was sort of holding me back, so it was just a matter of getting a fresh set of eyes.”
*Harris English and Kirk will have a comfortable pairing playing together in the final round. Both are two-time winners on the PGA Tour and former University of Georgia golfers. They’ve spent some time off the course this week in Honolulu, as well.
“We’ve eaten dinner a lot this week and last week back in Maui,” said English, who shot a third-round five-under 65. “We’re really good friends, and I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
English and Kirk were paired together in the first round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but Kirk left English in the dust that time.
“Kirk shot 7-under, so he got me a little bit, so maybe I can get some revenge on him tomorrow,” said English, smiling.
English has also already won on Tour in the 2013-14 season, securing the OHL Mayakoba Classic last fall. Earlier in 2013 he captured the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis for his maiden win. Now that he has experience in contention, I would keep my eye out for the 24-year-old coming down the stretch.
“This is probably my fourth, fifth, sixth time in this position, just knowing how your body reacts to pressure and how to slow down your walk and slow down your breathing a little bit, so I’m getting better and better at that,” he said.
*Meanwhile, here’s a fun note: There are six former University of Georgia Bulldogs who made the cut in the field, including four who are T18 or better (in order of place): Chris Kirk (1), Harris English (T2), Brendon Todd (T13), Hudson Swafford (T18), Brian Harman (T27), and defending champion Russell Henley (T55).
Said Kirk when asked about all the Georgia golfers on the ‘board: “Bermuda grass is probably about it. And there’s a lot of good players from Georgia.”
*Will Wilcox tied for low-round honors of the day, posting a six-under 64 at Waialae Country Club to move 15 spots up the leaderboard.
Wilcox is making his first start as a PGA Tour rookie in the 2013-14 season. This is only his third start on the Tour, with his previous two being the 2010 RBC Canadian Open and the 2011 U.S. Open.
“This is the third time I’ve ever played on Tour, so it’s something else,” said the 27-year-old from Birmingham, Ala. “It’s a dream come true. Obviously this is what I’ve been thinking about since I was eight years old when I first started playing competition golf. I wish my parents could be here to see it.
“But it’s pretty epic. I’m having a great time, I’ve got a great caddie, and I feel like I know which direction it’s turning, and that’s a good thing to have. ”
Wilcox said the key to his round was his chipping.
“My chipping has gotten better so I’m not so nervous about trying to hit the greens, and it doesn’t feel like I have to,” said Wilcox, who has hit 41 or 54 greens. “I actually chipped one in and I holed a bunker shot yesterday.
“Basically I’ve just been working really hard on my chipping and putting this week, so it feels good. When you can take pressure off your iron game, it feels better.”
Wilcox was more than happy with his position going into Sunday’s final round.
“I would have said I have no idea where the ball is going,” he said when asked for his reaction had he known where he stood through 54 holes at the start of the week. “But then it just kind of came together. Yesterday I think I hit one fairway on my front nine, and we were just like, what am I even doing out here.
“I was like embarrassed after about four of my tee shots. Not literally, but just hitting it so poorly, but loosened my hands up and everything kind of fell into place. I didn’t know what was going to happen this week. Make the cut was a dream come true; playing good on Saturday was a dream come true; getting to have a decent shot tomorrow is ridiculous.”
Wilcox finished seventh on the Web.com Tour money list last season, but for “personal reasons,” he wasn’t able to play in the Web.com Tour Finals, which dropped his priority number (the order in which players in that category get into tournaments) from 7 to 49. Now that really hurts.
“It wasn’t good,” he said. “It didn’t work out well at all. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Just fight it out.”
While Wilcox wouldn’t elaborate on his absence from Finals Series, there’s been chit-chat that it wasn’t voluntary. He wouldn’t comment when asked about it, either.
*Finally, Zach Johnson shot a third-round four-under 66, which puts him three shots off the lead. He’s the highest-ranked player at no. 7 in the world in contention. Adam Scott and his surfer pal caddie slipped a bit after positing a one-over 71 — he’s now T27.
Meanwhile, John Daly shared low-round of the day honors, firing a six-under 64, which moved him up 48 spots on the leaderboard.