Tour rookie Riley takes a 62-and-2 stroke lead in Tampa

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Davis Riley was expecting a big step Saturday in his first year on the PGA Tour. He was playing with fellow Alabama alum and close friend Justin Thomas, both in the mix this weekend in the Valspar Championship.

Indeed, they had the largest gallery in Innisbrook. Most of the cheers were for Riley.

Riley birdied three from hard places to close out the front nine, then roared the cheers of “Roll Tide” until he was 9-under 62, a tournament goalscoring record and a two-stroke lead over Matthew NeSmith going into the final. round.

“Super exciting,” Riley said. “At the start of the day I was thrilled to play with Justin. He’s a good friend of mine. We stayed in touch. And obviously he’s one of the best players in the world. Playing with him was really funny.

After judging the distance perfectly out of the rough for a 5-foot birdie on the No. 6, Riley was in the rough to the left of the seventh fairway with a tree blocking his way to the green. He used a 7 iron for a chip-and-run from 135 yards, the ball rolling the final 60 yards and up a narrow ramp to the green up to 10 feet for a birdie.

From the uphill slope of the bunker in front of the ninth green, 70 feet away, Riley blasted it hard and watched it hit into the cup on the fly for another birdie.


“It was really impressive,” Thomas said. “It’s a great moment for a rookie – anyone – and he handled it like a rock star and made 9 under look very, very easy.”

Thomas did his part with a third consecutive 66, which would have set Valspar’s championship 54-hole record in any other year. But not this one after Riley’s performance.

Riley was 18-under 195, beating by four the tournament record set a year ago by Sam Burns, who remains strong to win back-to-back.

NeSmith, who set the 36-hole record and trailed by four strokes when he made the turn, made his first bogey of the week at No. 10 and then made three more. He sprinkled in enough birdies and a solid save by the 18 for a 69.

Riley and NeSmith will be in the final group on Sunday.

“It’s what I dreamed of when I was little, to come here and play in the final group,” NeSmith said. “On the PGA Tour, the final group is the coolest thing in the world, and having that opportunity and playing well was awesome. And I just tried to enjoy the ride. It’s hard. It’s obviously very hard. But I did a good job.

Thomas and Burns (67th) were three strokes behind and have the experience of victory. The only other player within five shots was Adam Hadwin, who won at Innisbrook five years ago for his lone PGA Tour title. He shot 70 and was 13-under 200.

Thomas is now 14 under for the three rounds on the back nine alone. He needs a better start on Sunday, but has little to complain about in his game.

“I didn’t feel like I had a good round with Davis,” he said. “But yeah, it was a solid day and I put myself in a good position for tomorrow.”

NeSmith had reason to wonder what had happened. He did everything right, with birdies on par-5s, a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 7 and an 8-foot birdie on ninth to reach 18 under.

But he started to show some cracks in his iron game, going into a bunker on the 10, long on a pair of par 3s and hitting a bad chip that led to a bogey on the 16.

Even so, he was there with a chance to win for the first time and win a trip to the Masters, where his father worked as a part-time caddy.

The Copperhead course played a little louder with the strongest breeze of the week on the tree-lined property. Even three days of sunshine couldn’t make the greens too firm, and players were still aiming and scoring low. The average score was 69.7.

Xander Schauffele had a 68 and was in the big group at 11 under 202, all probably too far behind to make up for that kind of ground.

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Herman C. Harkins