As competitors at the AT&T Byron Nelson continued the countdown to this tournament’s final day at the Four Seasons Resort, they managed to return a missing element to the fray Saturday: drama.
That’s only appropriate because drama has been the Nelson’s calling card for 35 years at the TPC Las Colinas. Compared to most PGA Tour events, the Nelson has dripped with drama throughout its tenure in Irving whether it was created by stellar play, sloppy play, difficult scoring conditions or a six-man playoff.
The key factor Saturday proved to be birdie barrages from up and down the leader board. Multiple golfers participated, shifting the 54-hole lead into the hands of James Hahn by one stroke and preventing Jason Kokrak, the 36-hole leader by a tournament-record five strokes, from turning the event into a weekend snoozefest.
As things stand, Hahn has three pursuers within two strokes and 12 within five strokes as golfers prepare to play their final Nelson round at the current venue before the event moves next year to Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas. Based on Saturday’s under-par scoring average for the field (69.2), the lowest of tournament week, anything seems possible in Sunday’s final round and a playoff would be an appropriate final act.
That’s how last year’s event was settled, with Sergio Garcia outlasting Brooks Koepka with a par on the first hole of a sudden-death session. It’s how 13 of the first 34 Nelsons held in Irving have been decided, with nine others settled by a single stroke during regulation.
By comparison, the first 70 years of Colonial tournament history has triggered only 11 playoffs at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational, Fort Worth’s annual tour stop.
The reason for the disparity is open to debate. But this is not: Hahn knows he’ll likely be behind on the leader board when he takes the course for Sunday’s final pairing, even though he’ll sleep on the lead Saturday night.
“You go out there and try to make more birdies and hope the other guys are not making as many birdies as you are. That’s golf,” said Hahn, who posted his second bogey-free 64 in three days Saturday, erasing Kokrak’s five-stroke lead by the time Hahn reached the back nine. “You don’t really have to overpower this golf course. You have to keep it in play. Any time I’m in the fairway with any club, really, that’s a good chance for me to hit it in there to 10- or 15-feet and try to make a putt for birdie.”
That means any frontrunner that controls his driver in Sunday’s final round is capable of mounting a meaningful charge. Jason Day, the No. 4 player in the world golf rankings, managed to do that Saturday during an eight-birdie effort of 63, which included six consecutive birdies. Day, the 2010 Nelson champ, capped his surge with a 60-foot birdie putt at No. 17 and is two strokes off the pace.
“Everything was clicking. It seemed like I was on auto-pilot today, which was nice for a change,” said Day, who has been distracted by a back injury and his mother’s battle with lung cancer in recent months. “I feel like things are in balance now with regard to what happened earlier this year.”
Day was far from alone in turning up the heat on moving day at the Nelson. Billy Horschel closed with three consecutive birdies in a third-round 66, moving to 11-under-par and one stroke off Hahn’s lead. Not to be outdone, Masters champ Sergio Garcia and Cameron Tringale also went birdie-birdie-birdie to finish their rounds and turn up the heat on Hahn.
Garcia, the reigning Masters champion, took birdies on six of his final eight holes during a back-nine 29 that re-energized thoughts he could repeat as the Nelson champion.
“If I can play the same way [Sunday], I could have a chance,” Garcia said.
He’s hardly alone in feeling that way. And the Nelson course, as of Saturday, played almost three strokes per golfer easier than it did in Thursday’s windy conditions. If the winds do not howl Sunday, the congested leader board could trigger yet another playoff.
Kokrak, the only golfer among the contenders to post an over-par score Saturday (72), is counting on it. Despite backtracking by 10 strokes from Friday’s sizzling 62, Kokrak remains only two strokes off the lead as he seeks to secure his first PGA Tour triumph.
“Two strokes back. That’s one hole on this golf course,” Kokrak said. “There’s a lot of birdies to be had out there and I’ve got to put myself in better position off the tee. I’m definitely not out of this golf tournament.”
Neither are any of the other 23 golfers within seven strokes of the lead, a group that includes Dustin Johnson (5-under), the world’s top-ranked golfer.
Playoff, anyone? For the final Nelson in Irving, it seems like an appropriate way to say goodbye.