NAPA, Calif. (AP) Brendan Steele did just enough to keep the lead Saturday in the Frys.com Open.
He just missed a chance to do a lot more.
As one player after another was piling up birdies on the closing three-hole stretch at Silverado – eagle opportunities on each hole – Steele had to settle for three pars for a 3-under 69 and a one-shot lead over Andrew Loupe and Kevin Na.
Loupe had five straight birdies early in his round and four straight birdies late for a 63. Na played the closing stretch with an eagle and a birdie for a 64.
The PGA Tour season opener was wide open going into the final round with 16 players separated by only four shots.
Steele was at 14-under 202 as he tried to go wire-to-wire and pick up his second PGA Tour victory.
He could have made it easier on himself over the closing holes. Steele couldn’t get up-and-down from a bunker on the par-5 16th. His tee shot was slightly pulled and bounced out of a tree back to the fairway and short of the green on the 296-yard 17th hole, and he could get no closer than 20 feet with a wedge on the par-5 18th.
”It’s frustrating, because I thought I hit some good shots and good putts,” Steele said. ”It happens.”
A pair of PGA Tour rookies were among the eight players two shots behind at 12-under 204. Emiliano Grillo of Argentina, coming off a win in the Web.com Tour Championship two weeks ago, went eagle-birdie-par for a 65. Harold Varner III played that stretch in 1 over, having to scramble for a par on the 17th and missing the 18th green long with a wedge to make bogey. He shot 69.
Grillo drove near the 17th green and nearly took out Rory McIlroy, who was still playing the hole. Grillo was under the impression the group had left.
And if he had hit the four-time major champion?
”Would have put me out of my misery,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy opened with two quick birdies, though frustration set in quickly and he whacked the flagstick with the end of his putter after missing a par putt on No. 4. He finished with a 71 and was eight shots behind in a tie for 39th.
Steele felt like Saturday would be a grind the way the opening two rounds went, especially with sunshine making Silverado feel more crusty and firm in the afternoon. With some cloud cover, a little moisture on the course and the two-tee start with an 81-man field, there were plenty of low scores available.
”I played better than I score,” Steele said. ”That was a great round that Andrew shot. I didn’t see it, actually. The way it firmed up at the end yesterday and how firm it was today, you really had to be on your game in order to do that. I guess you never underestimate the talent level out here.”
Justin Rose, who along with McIlroy is at the Frys.com Open because of an eight-man exhibition he played in Turkey three years ago, used that closing stretch to make a pair of birdies for a 68 and get within two shots.
Others at 12-under 204 were Jason Bohn (64), Kyle Reifers (65), Graham DeLaet (69), Will Wilcox (69) and Jhonattan Vegas (69).
Justin Thomas had a 69 and was three shot behind.
The 54-hole cut knocked out nine players, so the final round will be played in twosomes from one tee. Loupe will play in the last group with Steele, and perhaps they can share tales from the Valero Texas Open. That’s where Steele won his only PGA Tour event in 2011 as a rookie. And that’s where Loupe had a chance to win in 2014 as a rookie until he faded at the end. Loupe wound up back on the Web.com Tour, and won a Web.com Tour Finals event just last month.
”I just think overall I feel I’m more ready,” Loupe said. ”I needed to get a win those Finals. That was huge, just to close out a golf tournament and all that.”