Daniel Chopra flirted with history on Saturday. The 37-year-old came tantalizingly close to shooting 59, but instead had to settle for what might have been along with a one-stroke lead in the Nationwide Tour’s Fresh Express Classic at TPC Stonebrae.
Chopra was 10 under through 16 holes on the par-70 layout and needed only a single birdie on one of his final two holes to join an elite list of professional golfers.
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“It was within my grasp at that point,” he said. “I’ve won golf tournaments, but never shot 59.”
Chopra’s 45-foot birdie putt at No. 17 came within inches of going in, and an errant second shot at the par-4 18th ultimately led to his only bogey of the day. The two-time PGA Tour winner finished with a career-best 9-under 61. His 12-under 198 total is one ahead of young guns Luke List and Monday qualifier Russell Knox. List carded a 6-under 64 during the third round, while Knox, one of four second-round co-leaders, posted a 4-under 66.
Erik Compton, Doug LaBelle II, Marco Dawson and Mathew Goggin share fourth place, four shots back of Chopra. Jason Enloe is five off the pace heading into Sunday’s finale.
Chopra began the day four off the lead, but the leaderboard was packed tight -- seven shots separated the field -- and he teed off two hours in front of the leaders. A birdie at No. 2 and a 5-foot eagle putt at No. 3 got him started. Then a pair of birdies to close the front nine put him 5 under for the day and atop the standings.
“I was sitting in the shuttle on the way to the 10th tee. I knew I shot 30 on the front, so I thought that theoretically I could shoot 59,” said Chopra, whose previous career low was 63.
Birdies at Nos. 12, 14 and 16 along with another eagle at No. 15 had him within striking distance.
“I was on the doorstep,” he said. “The difference between 59 and 60 is only one stroke but it might as well be 100. It’s such a big step.”
First came the miss at 17, but he still had a chance at the 438-yard, uphill 18th hole. With a 9-iron in his hand, Chopra yanked his second shot left of the green. He then watched his sidehill birdie chip slide a few feet in front of the cup. With the air gone, he ultimately missed his 6-foot par putt and a place in the record books.
“I’ve spoken to Stuart Appleby and spoken to Paul Goydos a little bit about shooting 59 and asked them if they would have taken a 59 and not win or taken the win and a 60 if they had a choice,” he said. “My answer would be that I’ve won tournaments before. I probably would have taken the 59 and then deal with it from there. Now that that’s over, the only thing left to do is to win the tournament.”
Chopra is in prime position for his first win since capturing the 2008 Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii, where he defeated Steve Stricker in a playoff.
His game tailed off last year and he finished out of the top 125 (176th) for the first time in his seven seasons on the PGA Tour.
“I know the game turns around. It always does,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much in the hole you seem to be, you keep going at it and eventually it will turn. I’ve been through the same stuff before. This is the longest stretch I’ve been through but we’re also on the highest stage in the world which makes it that much more of a chasm that you seem like you’re in.”
List, a Vanderbilt grad, is in position for his first career win despite not firing on all cylinders this week. He ranks dead last in fairways hit (19 of 39) and is tied for 49th in greens in regulation (34 of 54).
“I wasn’t striking it as well as I like but I really hung in there. My putting was very good today, that’s what saved me,” said List, who is tied for first in putting. “Saturday is always moving day and I feel that once guys make the cut, it’s guns blazing and you know you have to try and go as low as you can.”
Knox, making only his fourth career start on Tour, was unfazed by his final pairing with the Goggin, an Australian who has been ranked among the top 50 on the world in previous years.
“I was very nervous but excited to get the day going. It was a good nervous, though,” he said. “It was a great day and I loved every minute of it.”
It might have been even better had he rolled in a 4-foot birdie putt on the final hole to tie Chopra for the lead.
“I guess it broke a little more than I thought,” said Knox, who has played on the mini-tours for the past three years. “I’m just happy to be here. I know that tomorrow is a chance for me to change my life.”
--Saturday’s third-round scoring average for the par-70 course was 69.295.
--Daniel Chopra’s 61 set a new course record. The old mark of 62 (also a 9-under score) was set by Dustin Risdon in the third round in 2009.
--Daniel Chopra has held the 54-hole lead once before on the Nationwide Tour. He led by two after three rounds of the 2004 Henrico County Open (near Richmond, Va.) and shot a 7-under 65 to win by four. He has held the 54-hole lead twice on the PGA Tour -- 2007 Gin sur Mer Classic (shot 71/won by one) and the 2008 Buick Open (shot 75/tied for 17th).
--Matt Davidson recorded the second ace of the week on the par-3 sixth hole. Davidson used a 6-iron from 184 yards for his hole-in-one. Ken Duke aced the same hole with a 6-iron on Thursday. Davidson shot his third straight 2-under 68 and is tied for ninth place. The ace was his first in competition.
“It right of the green, in the fringe, and came right down the slope,” said Davidson. “It was exciting. We were slapping high-fives. It was exciting but I bogeyed the next hole so it was back to reality.
--Daniel Chopra had a pair of eagles on a pair of par 5s. Chopra’s eagles came at No. 3 and No. 15. Cameron Percy shot 66 while hitting all 18 greens in regulation. He finished with 33 putts. Jeff Gove was bogey-free en route to shooting a 4-under 66. Gove, in fact, has been without a bogey since the 10th hole in Thursday’s opener -- a stretch of 44 consecutive holes.