PALM HARPER, FL – Davis Riley made three birdies from tricky spots to close out the lead nine and then continued to roll on Saturday until he got a 9 under 62, a championship record and topped with two shots at the Valspar Championship.
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And just like that, there’s a Masters invite available for Riley, a 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie.
He played in front of the biggest show in steamy Innisbrook, most of whom were there to watch the other Alabama alum in pairing. Justin Thomas turned 66 for the third time in a row, which in any other year would have set a championship record.
Riley stole the show with a creative chip that escaped off the rough ground and under a tree, and with a 70-foot bunker shot that got into the cup while flying in at number nine. Those were two of his nine birds on Copperhead’s track – he only had 20 shots for the round – that helped him turn his five-shot delay into a two-piece lead.
“It’s always fun when you play with a good friend and Justin is clearly one of the best players in the world,” said Riley. “There was definitely a comfort level to that.”
Riley was 18 under 195, smashing by four the previous championship record set a year earlier by Sam Burns, who is still very well positioned to win back-to-back.
Matthew Nesmith, who set the 36-hole record and drove with four shots when he started his turn, made his first bogey this week in 10th and dropped three more shots. He sprayed enough sparrows and a solid reward except on day 18 for 69.
Riley and Nesmith will be in the last group on Sunday.
Thomas and Burns (67) were three shots behind and had the winning experience. Adam Hadwin, who won Innisbrook five years ago for his only PGA TOUR title, hit 70 and was five shots behind.
NeSmith had reason to wonder what had happened. He did everything right, with sparrows at par 5, in a 15-foot Byrdie throw on No. 7 and an 8-foot birdie on the ninth to hit 18 under.
But he started showing some cracks in his iron game, getting into a bunker on the 10th, long on a pair of 3s and hitting a bad chip that led to a bogey on the 16th.
However, he was there with a chance to win for the first time and earn a trip to the Masters, as his father worked as a part-time caddy.
“This is what I dreamed about when I was a little kid, get out of here and play in the last group,” Nesmith said. “On the PGA Tour, the last group was the coolest thing in the world, and having that opportunity and playing well was amazing. I just tried to enjoy walking. It’s hard. It’s obviously very difficult. But I did a good job.
“The goal was to finish 18 holes and enjoy walking and we did those two things today, so I’m very happy.”
It’s been more than a year since Thomas’ last win, the Championship of the Players, and he’s still been hunting amid the Riley Show. He made a tough save to close out the top nine and equalized Riley with 31 at the back and nine to keep three behind.
Even Thomas got involved with Riley’s performance.
“It was really cool,” Thomas said. “It’s an important moment for a newbie—anyone—and he handled it like a rock star and made 9 under looks so easy, except there’s a crazy chip in there at 9.”
The Copperhead course played even tougher with the strongest breeze of the week on the tree-lined property. Even three days of sunshine couldn’t make the greens so solid, and the players still shot and scored low. The mean score was 69.7.
Xander Schauffele was 68 and was in the big group at 11 under 202.