By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM contributor
PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Kevin Streelman wasn’t in front when his final putt dropped Saturday at the Tampa Bay Championship presented by EverBank. Nor did he expect to be.
With a 6-under 65 in shifting winds across Innisbrook Resort, the Chicagoland native had met his goal and was more than willing to let the Copperhead course shake things out over the final two hours.
“I doubt I’ll be in the lead,” Streelman said, “but I’ll be close enough to have a chance.”
Minutes later, Justin Leonard’s bogey gave Streelman a share of the lead. He still hadn’t lost it by the time the final beleaguered groups staggered off the course.
He’s close enough, all right. And so are nearly two dozen other pros after a frazzled day that lifted Streelman, Leonard and South Africa’s George Coetzee from the crowd, sent the previous leaders off a ledge and generally turned the leaderboard inside out.
Thirteen pursuers – ranging from former champions Luke Donald and Jim Furyk to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth – will begin Sunday’s final round no more than three shots off the pace.
“It’s a tough golf course,” said Furyk, a winner in 2010 and playoff victim last year to Donald. “You’re going to make some mistakes, I think. You can’t let those bogeys bother you too much.”
You may recall, too, that last year produced a six-way tie for the lead coming down to the final few holes. Four got into the playoff, where Donald found himself in the worst position after driving into the rough at No.18 but the best after his brilliant 7-iron gave him a 10-foot birdie chance.
“It is hard,” said Leonard, seeking his first victory since the 2008 FedEx St. Jude Classic. “There’s not a whole lot of birdie holes on those last six holes. With the greens getting firmer and faster … you have to be pretty patient out there and really pick your spots carefully.”
Streelman, Leonard (67) and Coetzee (68) completed 54 holes in 6-under 207 – one of those infrequent occasions in which the top score shifted into reverse. Shawn Stefani’s 7-under total had been the top score to start the day.
An opening bogey, though, sent Stefani falling from his perch. He wound up with a 3-under 74, mercifully still within striking distance at two shots back.
The bigger surprise came from Stefani’s two closest pursuers – Adam Scott and K.J. Choi. Both men slumped to 76s, with Scott carding bogeys on three of his first five holes and Choi on a bogey train after the turn.
Nor did it stop there. Jason Dufner carded a 74, Harris English a 73, Brian Harman a 72. Add them up, and Saturday’s final three pairings combined to shoot 19-over par.
Enter Streelman, who was simply trying to put himself within striking distance when he teed off two hours ahead of the final group. He set 65 as his target, and managed to meet it despite breezes that defied the forecast.
“The weatherman said south, the news anchor said south and [crews on] the first tee said south,” Streelman said. “We get out there, it’s our eighth hole and we’re just, ‘This isn’t south.’ It was out of the west all day.”
Perhaps that explains why Streelman hit just eight of 13 fairways. But he took just 25 putts, propelling him to a back-nine 31.
Streelman was the 54-hole leader in Puerto Rico three years ago, but a closing 73 left him three shots behind winner Derek Lamely. As an aside, Lamely also came from far off the pace – the last PGA TOUR winner to start his final round on the back nine.
“I’m going to stay aggressive,” Streelman said. “If you start playing to make pars, you’re not going to win the golf tournament. I had a two-shot lead [in Puerto Rico] and played to not lose it – and ended up losing it.”
Leonard recorded at least one win every year from 1996 to 2003, a run that included his British Open title in 1997. But his recent dry spell left him to cash in his one-time exemption for his place among the top 25 in all-time earnings.
Four birdies in a five-hole stretch bridging the turn propelled the native Texan to the solo lead, but a bogey at No.15 dropped him into a share of the top spot.
“I felt very comfortable out there,” Leonard said. “I know it’s just Saturday, but I also knew that I was up near the lead, and it was a very familiar feeling.”
Coetzee got into the Tampa Bay field on a sponsor exemption, his first PGA TOUR start outside the majors or World Golf Championships. He was battling to make the cut until a blistering second nine on Friday, carding five birdies on the Copperhead’s front side.
“It doesn’t matter where you play,” Coetzee said. “Still everybody gets to the golf course and nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
That may be truer at Innisbrook than most other TOUR venues.
And if the guy who walks away with the trophy on Sunday happens to be someone that hasn't been mentioned above – well, you’ll have an appreciation why.