PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Davis Riley made three birdies from tough spots to close out the front nine and then kept right on rolling Saturday until he had a 9-under 62, a tournament scoring record and a two-shot lead in the Valspar Championship.
And just like that, a Masters invitation is in view for Riley, a 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie.
He played before the largest gallery at steamy Innisbrook, most of them there to watch the other Alabama alum in the pairing. Justin Thomas did his part with a third consecutive 66, which any other year would have set a tournament record.
Riley stole the show with a creative chip-and-run from out of the rough and under a tree, and with a 70-foot bunker shot that clanged into the cup on the fly at No. 9. Those were two of his nine birdies on the Copperhead course – he had only 20 putts for the round – that helped him turn a five-shot deficit into a two-shot lead.
“It’s always fun when you get to play with a good buddy and Justin obviously is one of the best players in the world,” Riley said. “There was definitely a level of comfort there for that.”
Riley was at 18-under 195, breaking by four the tournament record last set a year ago by Sam Burns, who remains very much in the mix to win back-to-back.
Matthew NeSmith, who set the 36-hole record and led by four shots when he made the turn, made his first bogey of the week at No. 10 and dropped three more shots. He sprinkled in enough birdies and a solid par save on the 18th for a 69.
Riley and NeSmith will be in the final group Sunday.
Thomas and Burns (67) were three shots behind and have the experience of winning. Adam Hadwin, who won at Innisbrook five years ago for his only PGA Tour title, shot 70 and was five shots behind.
NeSmith had reason to wonder what happened. He did everything right, with birdies on the par 5s, at 15-foot birdie putt on No. 7 and an 8-foot birdie on the ninth to reach 18 under.
But he began showing a few cracks in his iron game, going into a bunker on the 10th, long on a pair of the par 3s and hitting a poor chip that led to bogey on the 16th.
Even so, he was right there with a chance to win for the first time and earn a trip to the Masters, where his dad used to work as a part-time caddie.
“This is what I’ve dreamed of as a little kid, coming out here and playing in the final group,” NeSmith said. “On the PGA Tour the final group is the coolest thing in the world, and to have that opportunity and to play well was great. And I just tried to enjoy the walk. It’s hard. It’s obviously very hard. But I did a good job.
“The goal was to finish 18 holes and enjoy the walk and we did both of those things today, so I’m pretty happy.”
Thomas has gone more than a year since his last victory, at The Players Championship, and stayed in the hunt amid the Riley show. He made a tough par save to close out the front nine and matched Riley with a 31 on the back nine to remain three behind.
Even Thomas got caught up in Riley’s performance.
“It was really impressive,” Thomas said. “It’s a big moment for a rookie – anybody – and he handled it like a rock star and made 9 under look very, very easy barring a crazy chip-in there on 9.”
The Copperhead course played slightly tougher with the strongest breeze of the week on the tree-lined property. Even three days of sunshine couldn’t make the greens too firm, and players still took aim and scored low. The average score was 69.7.
Xander Schauffele had a 68 and was in the large group at 11-under 202, all of them likely too far behind to make up that kind of ground.