DULUTH, Ga. (AP) — Unless he’s in suburban Atlanta, Ryuji Imada never hears a gallery that barks.
The fans were even louder this time, however, because the former Georgia Bulldogs standout was paired in the final group with Georgia Tech graduate Troy Matteson.
“Say if I was a leader at some other golf tournament, I’m sure it wouldn’t be like this,” Imada said. “But we’re in Georgia. We both went to a local school here. I was different, but it was a lot of fun.”
Imada and Matteson remained tied for the AT&T Classic lead Saturday, shooting 3-under 69s at TPC Sugarloaf to take a two-stroke advantage over Camilo Villegas into the final round.
Matteson had plenty of crowd support, too.
“It seemed like there were an even number of fans that came out for him and for myself,” Matteson said. “It’s just great when you can involve people like that, and I think that’s going to make those crowds a little bigger tomorrow.”
Imada and Matteson had 13-under 203 totals. Villegas was 11 under after a 68, and Masters champion Zach Johnson (69), local favorite Matt Kuchar (64) and Lee Janzen (67) were 10 under.
Imada nearly eagled the par-5 18th despite flying the rear bunker. He tapped in after chipping within a foot of the hole from 95 feet.
Despite hitting just six fairways Saturday and 24 this week, Imada has kept himself atop the leaderboard by leading the tournament with 26 putts and five saves from six bunkers.
A steady short game is the main reason Imada leads a PGA Tour event for the first time through 54 holes. The native of Mihara, Japan, had his second career top-10 finish at the Byron Nelson three weeks ago.
“I think about it when I’m practicing or whatever, but everybody has got to win their first event,” Imada said. “Even Tiger (Woods) did, (Phil) Mickelson did, so I’ve got to get mine sometime.”
Matteson had a two-stroke lead over his partner after a birdie at the par-4 14th, but Imada set up his spectacular finish with a birdie at the par-3 16th.
Villegas, a 25-year-old Colombian, moved into a share of the lead with three straight birdies before bogeying No. 8.
“I did a little work on the range last night and felt a lot better,” Villegas said. “I drove the ball pretty good. I felt comfortable over the ball on the tee, and even though (my score) was one worse than yesterday, I’m a lot happier with the 4 under today than with the 5 under yesterday.”
Matteson closed last season with five straight top-10 finishes, including his first career victory, but he arrived this week having missed six cuts in his last eight events.
Playing on a course he knows so well, Matteson would dearly love a victory in his adopted hometown.
“It’s tough when you have to go back to the hotel, not much to do, so your brain starts racing,” Matteson said. “You start thinking about winning, thinking about the things you need to do, and your brain goes all night. I think I can get home and try to relax a little bit.”
Janzen hasn’t won since earning his second U.S. Open title in 1998.
Matteson was helping him lobby AT&T tournament director Dave Kaplan for a sponsor’s exemption before so many of the PGA Tour’s top players declined invitations. That allowed Janzen, who didn’t qualify the last three weeks, to join the field.
“As of last week, I wasn’t in the field yet, but I had made reservations at a hotel and planned on coming all along,” Janzen said. “I’ve played this tournament every year since we moved to the new course.”
Kuchar’s 64 was the best round of the day.
A victory in suburban Atlanta would mean a lot to Kuchar, who still has a home in the metro area after starring at Georgia Tech. After winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur, Kuchar burst upon the golf scene at the ’98 Masters, where he flashed an infectious smile and finished in the top 25 at Augusta National to become a gallery favorite.
Since winning the 2002 Honda Classic, however, Kuchar struggled so much that he lost his card before finishing in the top 10 of the Nationwide Tour money list last year.
“On the golf course, it’s easy to beat yourself up,” Kuchar said. “You just have so many more bad things happen than good … it seems. Just to get a win every 100 tournaments would be great. You just don’t get that much success out here.”
After winning the Masters, Johnson has a pretty good following throughout the course. The Iowa native won his first tour title at Sugarloaf in 2004 and finished second last year.
Johnson likes his chances after hitting 17 greens in the third round. He had just 12 in the first round and 13 in the second, but Johnson needs to do better with his putter after taking 33 putts on Saturday.
“Off the tee, it’s pretty darned good, pretty solid,” Johnson said. “My iron game has been well, and my wedge game as been very well. I’ve got another day, and I’m going to try to stick with that and see if I can get my putter figured out.”
Bob Estes and Steve Elkington shot 67s to join Stephen Marino, Joe Ogilvie and Kevin Sutherland at 9 under.