LOS ANGELES — Back to his day job, Bubba Watson began with a tap-in eagle at Riviera and finished with a 6-under 65 on Saturday to take a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay in the Genesis Open.
Watson, a two-time winner at Riviera, has gone two years since his last victory and has fallen out of the top 100 in the world.
But he loves L.A. — and not just the golf course.
Taking in the full entertainment this city offers, Watson took part in the NBA All-Star celebrity game Friday night and made the wrong kind of highlight when he passed up a jumper, drove toward the basket and was rejected by Tracy McGrady.
He also shot an air ball from just inside the top of the key.
Watson was much better with a golf club in his hand. He chipped in from short of the par-3 sixth green, made two more birdies to go out in 30, and then began the back nine with a birdie on No. 10, his least favorite hole at Riviera. The only blip was a bogey on the 15th.
Watson was at 10-under 203 and will be in the final group with Cantlay, the former No. 1 amateur in the world and polar opposite of Watson.
Cantlay thrives on his ability to keep his head on the shot in front of him, and to keep his emotions from swinging too much — swinging anywhere, really — in either direction. He ended his round with a 55-foot birdie putt for a 69 to get within one shot of Watson.
Cameron Smith (65), Kevin Na (67), Graeme McDowell (70) and Tony Finau (68) were two shots back. Suddenly in the mix was defending champion Dustin Johnson, who told his brother at the turn that he had 27 holes to show what he had. Johnson then shot 29 on the front nine for a 64 and was four shots behind.
As much attention as Cantlay's long putt on the 18th gets, it was a series of pars on the front nine that saved him.
That started with a short-sided bunker shot and a 10-foot par putt. He missed the green left on the par-3 fourth hole and hit a lofted chip to 3 feet. He made a 10-foot par putt on No. 5 and another one that length at No. 7.
His best work came on No. 6, the par 3 with the bunker in the middle. It goes in the books as a two-putt par. It was so much more.
Cantlay pulled his tee shot to the left side of the green, with the pin on the other side of the bunker. Cantlay figured he could putt around the high side of the bunker that assure himself a 15-foot par putt from below the hole. Instead, he pitched it off the green and over the bunker, past the hole and up the slope, and then it rolled down toward the hole and narrowly missed.
It was so close that Cantlay began to run toward the low side of the bunker to watch, a rare display of excitement.
He kept a clean card on the back nine, opening with two birdies and closing with the big putt on the 18th, and he was in good position to win before family, friends and fans with UCLA gear that remember his days as a Bruin.
The nature of Riviera, with its firm turf after a week under the sun, made it difficult for anyone to get too far away. Fifteen players were separated by five shots going into the final round, though the task gets tough with Watson's history.
He won in 2014 by not making a bogey over the final 36 holes. He won again in 2016 during another week rubbing shoulders with the stars.
Justin Thomas played before a mostly quiet crowd after two days with Tiger Woods, who missed the cut. Thomas overcame a few mistakes for a 67 and was four shots back. Phil Mickelson had a 67 and was five behind. Jordan Spieth had nine straight pars between birdies on the par 5s and shot 69. He was seven back.
Rory McIlroy, who also played with Woods, had a 73 and fell out of contention.
Watson didn't mind getting stuffed by McGrady. His goal was to avoid getting hurt. And he didn't seem overly concerned about such a crowded leaderboard going into the last day. Having gone two years since his last victory, all he wanted was a chance. Now he has one.
This article was written by Doug Ferguson from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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