Fred Couples was starting to show his age Saturday at Riviera.
He hit a poor wedge, knocked a putt over the back of the green and turned a potential birdie into bogey on the 10th hole to slip three shots behind Aaron Baddeley in the Northern Trust Open. Then came a pounding rain as Couples approached the toughest stretch of the course, and the 51-year-old with an aching back braced for the worst.
2011 NORTHERN TRUST OPEN
The Northern Trust Open boasts the strongest field of the season so far.
"I was thinking, 'What am I going to shoot on the back nine, 40?'" Couples said. "You start playing like those guys did yesterday in that weather, anything would have happened."
Something did. The rain stopped. Couples played the rest of the way in 1 under par, keeping alive his hopes of another win at Riviera, and a chance to become the oldest PGA Tour winner in more than 35 years.
Even in good weather, it might not be easy.
Baddeley, whose career once held so much promise when he won the Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur, is starting to hit his stride since returning to longtime swing coach Dale Lynch. He played 22 holes on Saturday in all kinds of weather and hit just about every shot where he was aiming, including a few putts.
He birdied the 18th in the morning chill to finish off a second-round 69, then ran off three straight birdies around the turn that led to a 4-under 67 and his first 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour in five years.
Baddeley was at 10-under 203, one shot clear of Couples and Kevin Na, who grew up in Southern California and attended his first PGA Tour event at Riviera in 1995 when he was an 11-year-old with big dreams. Na also shot a 67.
"Tomorrow is going to be a good challenge for all of us," Baddeley said.
Winless in four years, Baddeley probably could not have guessed that the challenge would come from a couple of guys who are nearly old enough to be his father.
Couples, who joined the PGA Tour the year Baddeley was born, wound up with a 70.
One shot behind was Vijay Singh, who turns 48 on Tuesday and is trying to climb out of the worst slump of his career. He felt like the world's best putter in the third round, finishing with a birdie on the tough 18th for a 67.
Singh last won in 2008 at the Deutsche Bank Championship on his way to the FedExCup title.
"I'm really fired up for tomorrow," Singh said. "I'm in a good position to win tomorrow, so we'll see what happens."
Baddeley's last victory was in 2007 at the Phoenix Open. Later that year, he had a two-shot lead going into the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont, only to close with an 80. His game was in such disarray that he has plunged to No. 224 in the world ranking.
"It's been a little bit of time since I've been in this position, so I'm excited for the challenge," Baddeley said. "I'm excited to test out the new action, and I feel good. I feel like it's going to be fun tomorrow."
Baddeley was among those who went to the "Stack and Tilt" method taught by Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer, then decided to go back to his Australian coach, Dale Lynch.
"It's funny because I feel like I've been actually making a lot of progress, but it was never really showing on the scoreboard," Baddeley said. "So these last few weeks have really been nice to start to put some scores on the board. This week has been really nice."
And there was one nice stretch in particular.
It started with a tough approach to the par-4 eighth, where Baddeley had to be careful not to be too aggressive and run off the slope on the other side of the pin. He put it to within 8 feet for birdie, then holed a 30-foot birdie putt on the ninth. He nearly drove the 10th green, leaving him a delicate pitch to tap-in range for his third straight birdie.
One of his few mistakes was a tee shot that led to an adventure through the trees on the par-5 11th. It looked as though he would escape with par when he hit a wedge out of the rough to 4 feet, but he missed the putt.
He finished with seven straight pars.
Ryan Moore (70) and John Senden (71) were at 6-under 207, while Stewart Cink (71) and Robert Allenby (71) were part of the large group another shot behind.
Defending champion Steve Stricker made the cut on the number, then had a 66. That still left him seven shots behind. Stricker is still closer than Phil Mickelson, who struggled to a 74 and was at 2-over 215.
The gallery was with Couples, who first won at Riviera in 1990 when his hair was brown and he ambled along with California cool. Couples still has the cool factor to go with his graying hair, and he still has enough game.
He narrowly missed a 15-foot eagle putt on the opening hole. He made only one other birdie on the par-5 11th, and otherwise settled for pars except for his lone bogey. It was enough, though, to keep him in the game.
"I hung in there," Couples said. "I didn't hit the ball exceptionally well, but I hit it solid, which is what I said I needed to do. I just didn't make enough birdies. So tomorrow I have to come out and fight and see what happens."
Couples was one of the players Na wanted to watch when he came out to Riviera with his father in 1995. Now he will be playing with him in the final group, a chance for Na to get his first victory. And it would be a special one at that.
Not only does he have childhood memories of Riviera, his father was diagnosed with leukemia last year and has returned home to his native South Korea for treatment.
"My mother is going to Korea next week," he said. "And hopefully, I can give her a trophy so she can give it to him."