In his first year on the PGA Tour, Davis Riley expected a large stage Saturday. He was playing alongside Justin Thomas, a fellow Alabama alumnus and close friend. They were both in the Valspar Championship on Saturday.
They had Innisbrook’s largest gallery. Riley was the most popular cheerleader.
To close out the front nine, Riley made three birdies in tough spots and then rode the cheers from “Roll Tide” to a 9-under-62, a tournament scoring mark and a two shot lead over Matthew NeSmith going into round 5.
Riley called it “super exciting.” “Just at the beginning of the day, I was excited to play alongside Justin. He is a close friend of mine. We have kept in touch. He’s undoubtedly one of the most talented players in the world. It was great to play with him.
The distance to the green was 5 feet. 6. Riley was left of the seventh fairway in rough with a tree blocking his way to the green. He used a 7 iron for a chip and run from 135 yards. The ball rolled the last 60 yards up a narrow ramp leading to the green, where it reached 10 feet for birdie.
Riley watched the birdie go for the second time from the 70-foot distance of the bunker just in front of the ninth hole.
Thomas stated, “It was really amazing.” It’s a huge moment for any rookie, and Thomas handled it like a rock star. He made 9 under look easy.
Thomas played his part by scoring a third consecutive 66. Any other year, Thomas would have broken the 54-hole scoring record of the Valspar Championship. Riley’s performance was the reason this one didn’t happen.
Riley finished at 18-under195, breaking four tournament records last year set by Sam Burns. Sam Burns remains in contention to win back-toback.
NeSmith, who broke the 36-hole mark and was leading by four shots at the turn, made his first par of the week at No. 10, and then added three more. He had enough birdies to score a 69 and saved a solid par on the 18th.
Riley and NeSmith will be part of the final group on Sunday.
NeSmith stated, “This is what my dreams have been since I was a child. Coming out here and playing the final group.” “The PGA Tour’s final group is the coolest thing anywhere. It was an amazing opportunity to have that chance and to play well. I tried to enjoy the walk. It’s hard. It is obviously difficult. It was a hard job, but I did a great job.
Thomas (67) and Burns (67) were three shots back and have the experience to win. Adam Hadwin was the only player within five shots of him, having won Innisbrook five year ago for his first PGA Tour title. He shot 70, and was 13-under 200.
Thomas is currently 14 under for the three rounds of the back nine. Thomas needs to get off to a better start Sunday but is happy with his performance.
He said, “It didn’t feel like I had a great round playing alongside Davis.” “But yes, it was a solid round and put me in a good place for tomorrow.”
NeSmith was left to wonder what had happened. NeSmith did all right with birdies at the par 5s and a 15-foot birdie putt at No. To reach 18 under, he made 7 and an 8 foot birdie on the 9th.
He began to show some signs of improvement in his iron game. He went into a bunker at the 10th and was long on a pair par 3s. His poor chip led to bogey at the 16th.
He was still there for the chance to win and to earn a trip at the Masters with his dad, who used to be a part-time caddie.
Copperhead’s course was slightly more difficult due to the stronger breeze on the tree-lined property. The greens were firm even after three days of sunshine, but players kept their eyes open and managed to score low. The average score was 69.7.
Xander Schauffele was 68th and was in the large group of 11-under 202. All of them were likely too far behind to make up this much ground.