Following the Leaders at Valhalla

In pro golf tournament, Saturday is known as moving day, the time when the eventual leader makes a move. Think of it as the turn for home in the Derby, in which the frontrunner rarely holds on to win.

This birdie putt at 15 gave Hale Irwin a short-lived 2-shot lead

I followed the leaders on the back 9 at Valhalla Saturday, as Kyoshi Murota and Hale Irwin made one brilliant shot after another, and each one committed a duffer’s gaffe as the pressure of holding the lead in a major championship took hold. The gallery, filled with folks imagining themselves playing this challenging layout, was pulling for Irwin, who at 66 would be the oldest ever to win this championship. He enters today’s round tied with Murota, the Japanese golfer who struggled with a bad back for much of the round.

On 10, both Irwin and Murota birdied, the latter holding a 1-shot lead. But Murota’s problems started on the Par 3 11th, when his tee shot landed in the short rough left of the hole. He stubbed it onto the green, and missed a lengthy putt. Irwin’s par tied it. Then on 12, Murota hit his drive in the left rough, then hit his 2nd a grand total of 15 feet. Ouch. “He’s gotten emotional,” remarked a woman standing next to where he chunked it.

His next shot was short of the green. He double-bogeyed, while Irwin hit fairway, green and 2 putts for par. Irwin by 2.

They both parred the next 2, including the island green 13th, both missing birdie putts. On 15, Murota’s ball bounced off a tree and into the fairway, but a long way from the hole. He laid up, got on the green in 3, and made par. Irwin looked like he would save par out of a bunker, but blew a very short putt for bogey. Irwin by 1.

A big crowd watched the final group

At 16, Irwin knocked his 2nd shot within 5 feet and knocked down the birdie, while Murota was in the rough off the tee, but saved par. Irwin by 2. On 17, just when the gallery was getting comfortably behind Irwin, he hit his tee shot way left. A miraculous second went into a bunker, and Irwin saved par from there. Murota missed a birdie putt, so Irwin maintained a two-shot lead going to 18.

And there, Irwin suffered his first double bogey of the tournament. When Murota got par, the two were tied. So they tee off in the final round at 1:35 today, tied for the lead.

Expect the locals to get behind Irwin, whose win would be a better story. And remember that Tom Watson is lurking just a shot back as play begins today.

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