ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. (AP) Mackenzie Hughes atoned for a triple bogey that cost him the lead by making a tough par save and three birdies for a 2-under 68, giving the Canadian rookie a one-shot advantage going into the final round of the RSM Classic.
Next up at Sea Island is 18 holes in the final group with Billy Horschel and Camilo Villegas.
”Everyone will be fighting the same nerves,” Hughes said.
Five events into his rookie season, the 25-year-old Hughes showed plenty of poise. He had gone bogey-free for the first 46 hole of the tournament when he tried to do too much from an awkward lie in fairway bunker on No. 11. The ball stayed in the bunker in a depressed lie, and he compounded his mistakes by dumping his third shot into another bunker, and then three-putting when he finally reached the green.
”I was like, ‘This hole is never going to end,”’ he said. ”It finally did, and it worked out all right.”
He followed with perhaps his most important shot of the tournament, a pitch from 50 feet over a steep slope to a back pin to tap-in range to save par. Then he added three birdies with his smooth putting stroke to reach 16-under 196.
Horschel, who hasn’t won since the Tour Championship two years ago when he captured the FedEx Cup, holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole of the Seaside course at Sea Island for a 65. Villegas overcame a double bogey early in his round and finished with four straight birdies for a 64.
Joining them at 15-under 197 was another PGA Tour rookie, C.T. Pan of Taiwan. He shot a 67 playing in the final group.
More than costing Hughes a big lead, that triple bogey made the final round of the year on the PGA Tour far more bunched than it needed to be. Ten players were within four shots of the lead, a group that included Charles Howell III (13-under 199) and Stewart Cink (12-under 200).
Horschel has slipped to No. 76 in the world since his big FedEx Cup run in 2014. He has worked hard on his short game and feels that turning around, and he believes the windy conditions after two days of calm might have helped someone who hits the ball as crisply as he does.
He thinks experience will play a role, too.
”There’s some young guys up there on the leaderboard that haven’t been in … obviously, they’ve won other times, but out on the PGA Tour it’s a little bit different. But it all depends on what kind of conditions we get. I would to have similar conditions today because I think the better player shows up in these conditions.”
Villegas also has gone two years without a victory, and he lost his card this year and only got into the tournament as a past champion. One week could change everything.
”Let me tell you something, it’s 18 more holes of golf. I’m feeling good,” Villegas said. ”I’ve been a lot more comfortable than I have been. I think it’s all about having the mind in the right place. My shots when I’m calm out there are pretty good and hopefully we can accomplish that tomorrow. I think the leaderboard is jam-packed as always. We’re playing the PGA Tour, the best players in the world, but I’ve got to wake up tomorrow believing I can do it.”
Pan, a former No. 1 amateur when he was at Washington, when from four shots behind to a one-shot lead in a span of two holes when he rolled in a pair of birdies and Hughes made a mess of the 11th hole. Pan dropped a shot on the next hole with a wild tee shot that the wind made look worse, but he was never out of position the rest of the way.
Hughes, who got married in his only week off this fall, has led at Sea Island from his opening 61 on the Seaside course. After that superb up-and-down following his triple bogey, he hit two good tee shots into the wind and with the wind blowing off St. Simons Sound, and he rolled in medium-length birdie putts to make up for the dropped shots at No. 11.
”It was nice to bounce back and to feel like I’m going this way, not stepping back,” Hughes said.