PGA Tour rookie Davis Riley shoots 9-under 62 to take lead in Valspar Championship
PALM HARBOUR, Fla. — Davis Riley birdied three from hard places to close out the first nine, then kept rolling Saturday until he had a 9-under 62, a tournament scoring record and a lead two shots in the Valspar Championship. .
And just like that, a Masters invite is in sight for Riley, a 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie.
He performed in front of the biggest gallery in scorching Innisbrook, with most of them there to watch the other Alabama alum in the couple. Justin Thomas did his part with a third consecutive 66, which any other year would have set a tournament record.
Riley stole the show with a creative chip-and-run out of the rough and under a tree, and with a 70-foot bunker shot that blared into the cut on the fly at No. 9. Those were two of his Copperhead’s nine birdies on the course — he had just 20 putts for the round — helped him turn a five-stroke deficit into a two-stroke lead.
“It’s always fun to play with a good buddy and Justin is obviously one of the best players in the world,” Riley said. “There was definitely a level of comfort there for that.”
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.
Matthew 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 dropped three more strokes. 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.
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Thomas and Burns (67th) were three strokes behind and have the experience of victory. Adam Hadwin, who won at Innisbrook five years ago for his lone PGA Tour title, shot 70 and was five shots behind.
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.
“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.
“The target was to complete 18 holes and enjoy the walk and we did both of those things today so I’m pretty happy.”
Thomas has been over a year since his last win, at The Players Championship, and has remained in the hunt amidst Riley’s show. He made a tough save to close the front nine and tied Riley with a 31 on the back nine to stay three behind.
Even Thomas got caught up in Riley’s performance.
“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 cents look very, very easy, except a crazy chip-in there on 9.”