Knoxville native Chris Kirk matched the course record Saturday and moved into sole possession of the lead after 54 holes of the Nationwide Tour’s Knoxville News Sentinel Open. Kirk posted a 9-under 63 and stands at 15-under 201 following three rounds at the Fox Den Country Club. He leads by one shot over 48-year-old Kirk Triplett (67) and by two over Australian Gavin Coles (64) and California rookie Travis Bertoni (65).
Rookie Keegan Bradley of Vermont posted a 63 earlier in the day to get to 13 under and shares fifth place with Canada’s David Hearn (66) and 49-year old Ben Bates (67).
“I think the golf course sets up well for me and I’ve had a good year,” said Kirk, who lost a playoff here to Jarrod Lyle in 2008 and came into the week No. 4 on the Nationwide Tour money list. “If you combine those with coming to a place where I’ve played well in the past then I guess I’m not surprised to be playing well but happy to be.”
Kirk ran the spectrum of emotions Saturday. Normally calm and quiet, the 25-year old got rattled on the par-5 10th when he was told his group was lagging behind.
“They came up to me and told me I had a bad time and told me I was going to get a one-shot penalty if I got another bad time,” said Kirk, who promptly knocked his 50-foot eagle putt 10 feet past the cup and onto the fringe. He missed the birdie coming back but settled down enough to focus on the game at hand.
Birdies at Nos. 13 and 16, both par 3s, got him to 12 under par but an errant tee shot at the par-4 16th wound up in some trees down the right side. From there Kirk turned a negative into a positive from 160 yards.
“I didn’t have a great lie and was kind of behind a tree. I tried to hit a flop shot-flyer, 9-iron over the trees and cut it a little bit,” he said. “It came out perfect and landed just short of the green. I hit a really good shot but when a shot like that goes in it’s just blind luck. I was definitely in position off the tee where you’re trying to find a way to make par. To have it go in is just crazy.”
It’s been that kind of year for the Georgia grad. He lost a playoff in the second event of the year but broke through for his first career win in June, capturing the Fort Smith Classic.
“You always have the belief that you can win and you have the game to win,” he said. “You wouldn’t be out here if you didn’t totally believe you could (win) but believing and doing are two different things.”
Triplett, a three-time PGA Tour winner, hasn’t been in contention in a while but was able to draw on 21 years of Tour experience to settle his nerves down the stretch.
“To me it’s not about who you’re playing or where you’re playing, it’s what can you do when you get a little ginchy or get a little nervy and all of a sudden the fairways seem a little narrower,” he said. “I had a couple of wayward tee shots on the last two holes and hadn’t really battled it all day. I had to shift gears and had to battle to make pars and not make a big mistake at the end. You catch that leaderboard and you know where you stand and you don’t want to ruin a good day’s work.”
Triplett admitted he couldn’t help but laugh late in the day when he spotted an electronic leaderboard.
“I looked over on 16 green and saw the leader’s name is Kirk and so it’s Kirk, Triplett as the top two guys,” he said. “I’ve never seen that before so I got a chuckle out of that.”
Third-Round Notes: Saturday’s scoring average was 69.288. … Officials moved the tee up 85 yards on the par-5 18th, turning it from a 597-yard monster into a 512-yard pussycat. The hole played over par in Round 1 (5.032) and close to par in Round 2 (4.922). Today’s scoring average was 4.591. Despite the inviting second shot over water, there was only one eagle recorded at the hole today, from Fernando Mechereffe. There were 30 birdies, 31 pars, three bogeys and one double bogey. Officials have indicated the tee will remain forward for Sunday’s final round.
Rookie Keegan Bradley, No. 25 on the money list, tied the Fox Den CC course record with a 9-under 63. Bradley had no bogeys, seven birdies and an eagle. Bradley made the 36-hole cut on the number (-3) and started today tied for 49th. His 63 is the best score this week and vaulted him to 12-under 204, where he is tied for fifth. Bradley was 5 over par through his first 12 holes on Thursday and is 17 under since then (41 holes). … Keegan Bradley tied the course record with his 63, but the Tour rookie has already set two course records this season. Bradley’s 10-under 61 in Round 2 of BMW Charity Pro-Am was a new mark at the Thornblade Club. He also shot a 10-under 61 in the second round of the Fort Wayne Gretzky Classic at the Georgian Bay Club.
Monday qualifier Peter Malnati of Dandridge, Tenn. (about 50 miles from Knoxville), had back-to-back eagles today. Malnati made an eagle-2 at the par-4 ninth hole and then backed it up with an eagle-3 at the par-5 10th hole. Malnati played the last six holes in 3 over par and wound up with a round of 70. He is 7 under and tied for 34th place. … Andrew Svoboda aced the par-3 16th hole. Svoboda used a 7-iron from 178 yards for his hole-in-one, the first of the week. The “1” on the scorecard helped him shoot a score of 70. He is at 10 under and tied for 10th place.
Second-round leader Gary Woodland started the day at 11 under par and up by two strokes. He eagled the opening par-5 first hole to reach 13 under and made the turn with the lead at 14 under. Woodland was done in by double bogeys at Nos. 12, 13 and 15, the last of which dropped him to 8 under for the tournament. He rallied with a birdie at No. 16 but wound up with a 2-over 74, dropping him to 9 under and tied for 14th. … John Daly, playing on a sponsor’s invitation, shot a 1-over 73 and stands at 3-under 213 after 54 holes. Daly is tied for 63rd in the 66-man field and will be in the second group off the first tee Sunday morning (8:06 a.m.).