SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – On a gusty afternoon that made the Cochise Course play like a lofty summit and club selection feel like a lottery, Frank Esposito Jr. held the lucky ticket.
The 2014 Champion from Old Bridge, New Jersey, carved a steady 3-under-par 69 to surge to the 54-hole lead in the 29th Senior PGA Professional Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz. Esposito’s 8-under-par 208 is a stroke better than PGA Life Member Chris Starkjohann of Oceanside, California, who closed with a 70.
Sam Randolph, a PGA Director of Instruction at Mira Vista Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, was two strokes back at 210 after a 70. Defending Champion Steve Schneiter of Sandy, Utah, slumped to a 76, and was joined at 211 by Walt Chapman of Knoxville, Tennessee (71); and Jim Schuman of Scottsdale, Arizona, (71). Overall, 72 players advanced after the second cut of 6-over-par 222.
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The final 18 holes of the $300,000 Championship will be played Sunday on Cochise. The low 35 scorers earn a berth into the 79th KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, May 22-27, 2018, at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Having enjoyed tranquil conditions the previous two days, the swirling breezes across Desert Mountain caused a shuffling of leaders throughout the day.
“You really had to take your time, get front yardages, pick your club and commit to your shot,” said Esposito, who recovered after a bogey on No. 12 and took advantage of the two remaining par-5s coming in.
A poor drive on No. 15 forced a lay-up, but Esposito knocked a wedge within three feet for a tap-in birdie. He then reached No. 18, a 509-yard par-5, in two shots, resulting in a stress-free two-putt to own the overnight lead.
Starkjohann, who teaches at Carlsbad (California) Golf Center, said his focus and his Odyssey putter was his best tool in the third round. He made two par saves, including an eight-footer at No. 3 and a chip to a tap-in at No. 14.
“I hit it solid and made a couple dumb mistakes, but otherwise it was a solid round,” said Starkjohann. “I’m not playing much anymore in the (Southern California PGA) Section, but when I do get a tournament I want to play in, I focus harder. My putting has been really good this week.”
It was a disappointing day for Schneiter and Mike O’Toole of Noblesville, Indiana, who began the round separated by a stroke and seemingly full of momentum. But Schneiter lost his putting magic, had four bogeys, a double bogey at No. 7 and two birdies.
O’Toole, the PGA Head Professional at Riverside Golf Course in Indianapolis, fell out of contention after a quadruple bogey 7 on the par-3 13th hole on his way to a 77 and five strokes behind.
One redeeming moment for Schneiter was courtesy of his playing partner, Esposito.
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Schneiter lost his tee shot right of the 18th fairway, but Esposito found the ball in a bush. Schneiter took a penalty drop, then hit a 235-yard, 5-wood approach to 30 feet. His birdie putt hung on the lip of the cup and didn’t fall.
“The conditions were tougher, the pin placements were tougher and it had me all messed up,” said Schneiter, a PGA Assistant Professional at Schneiter’s Pebblebrook Course.
After rounds of 68 and 69 on Cochise, Esposito has reason to feel there’s momentum heading into Sunday’s final round.
“I don’t know if [Cochise] suits my game,” he said. “I like the way it sets up. I don’t know what that means, but I played nice the first and third rounds.”
Esposito and Mark Mielke of Jupiter, Florida, are the only two players to register a pair of sub-70 rounds on Cochise. Mielke had a pair of 69s, and sits four strokes back.
“Keep doing what I’m doing, just plug along,” said Esposito. “I can’t think of the final result; I can only control what I can control.”
The Senior PGA Professional Championship is supported by GolfAdvisor.com and John Deere.
The top eight finishers, including ties, will be exempt into the 2018 Senior PGA Professional Championship. The top five finishers earn a berth into the final stage of the 2017 PGA Tour Champions National Qualifying Tournament Final Stage, Nov. 28-Dec. 1.