Ben Curtis stretches lead to five shots
Winning the Booz Allen Classic, a tournament that might not even exist next year, could be as important to Ben Curtis as winning the British Open.
With a five-stroke lead entering Sunday's final round, he has his best chance yet to prove that his 2003 victory as a rookie at Royal St. George's was no fluke.
"I wouldn't say it's more important," Curtis said, "but it's probably close to as important for me to go out there and prove that I can win again. There, for a while, I was having doubts, but I just kept working hard and fighting through the mess that I got myself into in my golf game. Now it seems to be going in the right direction."
And, unlike his British Open win, Curtis won't be sneaking up on anybody this time. He's led from the opening day with rounds of 62, 65 and 67, his 19-under score of 213 breaking the tournament record through 54 holes. On Sunday, his biggest decision could be whether to sit on his lead by settling for pars or sticking with the aggressive iron play that helped build his lead.
"Guys are going to go out there and they are going to come firing after me," Curtis said, "so I'm going to have to keep making birdies."
Curtis' nearest competitor is Brett Quigley, who shot a 67 to move to 14 under. 1996 champion Steve Stricker (66) and Sweden's Daniel Chopra (67) are tied for third, seven strokes off the lead.
"It's not like I can shoot even par and have a chance," said Quigley, who has three Top 10 finishes this year in the quest for his first PGA Tour victory. "There is not a question of if I'm going to shoot under par. I need to shoot 5-under or better."
While playing partners Jose Coceres (78) and Jeff Gove (71) fell apart early, Curtis rarely hit a wayward shot on another day of ideal conditions at the TPC at Avenel. Curtis was the only player in the field to hit every green in regulation -- even after landing in a fairway bunker at No. 18 -- and picked up strokes with three consecutive birdies on the front nine and one more on the back nine in a bogey-free round.
Curtis said he hasn't had this much confidence since the year of his British Open title when became the first player in 90 years to win a major on his first try. At the time, he was the beneficiary of a four-hole meltdown by Thomas Bjorn and never had to make a pressure putt at the 18th hole. Since then, he's made the cut in fewer than half his tournaments, and his best finish was third place at last year's Western Open.
"I hit it pretty consistent," said Curtis, whose approach at No. 5 landed about a foot from the pin. "I hit the irons extremely well. It's just a matter of making a couple of putts. It could have been a really good score, but overall I'm very pleased."
Curtis also manage to beat the weather. A forecast of thunderstorms prompted officials to begin play early Saturday, with threesomes starting a 7 a.m. and leaders teeing off at 9 a.m. Even though the pace was arduously slow -- Curtis' round took more than five hours -- the golf was completed in brilliant sunshine without a drop of rain. That made the decision to allow the golfers to lift, clean and place balls on the fairway seem extremely generous.
"They're scared we're going to get a bunch of rain and the course will be unplayable," Quigley said. "It's almost two shots easier because we have perfect lies every time in the fairway."
Still, tournament officials are taking no chances. More storms are predicted Sunday, so the lead group will again tee off at 9 a.m., and lift, clean and place will again be in effect in the final round to be played at Avenel before the tournament moves to the fall in 2007 -- assuming a new sponsor is found.
While Curtis thrived, Coceres and Gove were unable to take advantage of the ideal conditions. Coceres started the day one shot off the lead, and Gove began three back. Neither remained in contention for long.
Coceres, whose only two PGA Tour wins came in 2001, had said Saturday would be a big day because his native Argentina was playing Mexico in the World Cup, and he played as if he couldn't wait to get inside and watch the game.
He looked agitated as he rushed tee shots and putts. He had three three-putts in his first five holes, then had to take a drop after hitting into a creek ravine at No. 6. He declined to comment after his round.
Gove, a Nationwide Tour veteran seeking his first PGA Tour victory, bogeyed the first two holes -- hitting a tree at No. 2 -- before rallying with two late birdies to shoot a 71. He's in a five-way tie for fifth, eight shots behind Curtis.
"It was one of those days that I didn't feel comfortable," Gove said. "Shooting par's all right, and hopefully tomorrow I'll come out go back to what I was doing Thursday and Friday."