Steele peels out to five-shot lead at Nationwide Tour Championship

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Brendan Steele took the lead thanks to birdies on six of his first seven holes on Saturday.
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Californian Brendan Steele took a big step toward earning his 2011 PGA Tour card on Saturday by firing a 7-under-par 65 in the Nationwide Tour Championship at Daniel Island to build a five-shot lead heading into tomorrow’s final round of the 2010 season.

Steele is 14 under par for his three trips around the 7,446-yard Daniel Island Club. Fellow Californian James Hahn and 2007 U.S. Amateur champion Colt Knost are tied for second at 9 under.

Steele began the week 30th on the Nationwide Tour money list. Only the top 25 money winners will be awarded their 2011 PGA Tour cards after play on Sunday. A win would comfortably accomplish Steele’s goal of securing his card.

The 27-year-old leader got off to a scorching start with birdies on six of his first seven holes to turn in 30. He added one more birdie on the par-3 15th to join Jim Herman in posting one of only two bogey-free rounds on the day.

“It was fun today but not as much as you’d think,” Steele said. “It’s still a grind no matter what’s going on, no matter how well you’re playing. A hot start makes it a lot easier.”

Looking ahead to Sunday, Steele said, “I know what can happen with this game if you start wandering a little bit or get caught up in what’s going on. My caddie’s been doing a good job of keeping me focused and that will be the game plan tomorrow. I slept fine last night. I don’t know about tonight. I’ll try to keep the same routine. Go home and watch the World Series and get the LA Kings game going on my computer.”

Hahn improved seven shots from Friday’s disappointing 74 in Saturday’s more calm conditions. At No. 29 on the money list, he began the week one spot ahead of his good friend Steele. The 2003 University of California-Berkeley graduate could have gone really low, but missed putts of 8 feet on holes 14, 15 and 16.

“I did exactly the same thing I did yesterday,” Hahn. “The putts just went in today. It’s a fine line between shooting 5 under and 2 over. Tomorrow I’m going to go out there and try to make a lot of putts and count ‘em up in the end. I’m not going to worry about much.”

Hahn expressed a similar attitude to Steele’s about Sunday. “There are too many small stories out there in the overall story of the Tour Championship,” he said. “I am not at all relieved I'm inside the top 25 at the moment. That's when you start relaxing too much. It’ll catch up to you.”

Knost shared the halfway lead with Steele and Joe Affrunti. After a front-nine 37, the Texan battled back into contention with birdies on three of his last six holes to shoot 70.

“It’s tough,” Knost said. “You’re nervous whenever you’re in contention. There’s a lot more at stake this week.”

Affrunti wound up shooting even-par 72 to finish the day seven shots back in a tie for fourth at 9 under. Joining Affrunti are Texan Tag Ridings and Canada’s David Hearn, who made critical bogeys on 17 and 18. A lot is on the line for Affrunti, Knost and Hearn tomorrow. The trio began the week 35th, 36th and 27th, respectively, on the money list.

The final round gets underway at 7:48 a.m. tomorrow morning with the Steele and Hahn in the last group at 12:15 p.m. Golf Channel will carry the final round live from 2 to 4:30 p.m. ET.

Third-Round Notes: Steele’s five-shot lead after 54 holes is the largest in Nationwide Tour Championship history. Four players held the record previously, with David Branshaw being the most recent (2005). … Steele's five-stroke advantage matches the largest 54-hole lead on Tour this season. Three players have held five-stroke leads heading into the final round: Fran Quinn (Panama Claro Championship/won), John Riegger (Rex Hospital Open/won -- shortened to 54 holes) and Kevin Chappell (Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic/third).

Steven Bowditch aced the 12th hole from 195 yards, the ninth in the history of the Nationwide Tour Championship. It was the 25th of the year on Tour. … Leading money winner Jamie Lovemark will be hard to overtake for the top spot after recording a 70 to finish the day tied for ninth. … Lovemark’s nearest rival, Tommy Gainey, moved up the leader board early with four birdies in his first eight holes. He cooled off the rest of the way playing his last 10 holes in 3 over and is tied for 22nd.

Jhonattan Vegas had two eagles Saturday on Nos. 6 and 18. He birdied both holes the first two days and is a cumulative 8 under par on the two holes. Vegas stands 4 under par for the tournament. … Limping every step of the way and walking with a cane in between shots, Peter Tomasulo posted a 2-under-par 70 to go along with his 72-79 start. He is tied for 49th. … Steele, who has no wins on Tour, is seeking to become the 15th first-time winner this season. Three players in Tour history have made the Nationwide Tour Championship their first career win.