SAN MARTIN, Calif. — Brooks Koepka knows what it’s like to hold the lead going into the final round. And he knows what it’s like to win.
Just not in America.
Playing the PGA Tour behind stops in Scotland and Shanghai, Koepka gave himself a great chance at yet another detour in his around-the-world journey this year. He had 4-under-par 67 on Saturday in the Frys.com Open for a two-shot lead over George McNeil and Jason Kokrak going into the final round at CordeValle.
Koepka has won in Spain and Portugal, Italy and Scotland.
The 23-year-old Floridian started the year with no status on any tour, and since then has earned membership on the Challenge Tour and European Tour. A victory today would give him a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and keep him from having to reload the pages in his passport.
“Feels the same,” he said. “It’s all how much pressure you put on yourself. Obviously, I think there may be some people that don’t think I can handle it on Sunday, just for the fact that I’ve never been sitting in this position. Just got to take it as it comes and just be relaxed about it. I’m pretty chill, so nothing really bothers me.”
Kokrak holed out for eagle from 129 yards in the first fairway. Koepka rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt. Robert Garrigus dropped a shot into 4 feet on the second hole. Koepka matched him with an 18-foot birdie.
He wound up at 15-under 198, one round away from earning membership on three tours in one year – not to mention a trip to the Masters Tournament.
“The Challenge Tour prepared me pretty well,” Koepka said. “Learning how to win is a big deal.”
McNeill made 10 birdies in his round of 62 that put him in the last group with Koepka. McNeill is a two-time winner on the PGA Tour. He has never played in the Masters because both wins were opposite-field events that didn’t award full FedEx Cup points.
“I’m going for the record to win the most times without qualifying,” McNeill said.
That’s no longer the case, since the Frys.com Open, which is the first event on the new wraparound season, now awards full FedEx Cup points.
Kokrak nearly ended his day the way it started when his wedge spun back toward the hole. He settled for a short birdie putt and a 68 that put him in the last group with Koepka and McNeill.
Jimmy Walker also had a 62 and was three shots behind with Robert Garrigus (68) and Vijay Singh, the 50-year-old Fijian making his first PGA Tour start in nearly two months. Singh hit driver on the par-4 17th hole up the back of the green, back down the slope to about 2 feet for an eagle. That carried him to a 65.
Singh last season failed to finish in the top 125 on the money list for the first time in his career. He missed the cut in six of his last 11 tournaments since filing a lawsuit against the PGA Tour for the way it investigated his admission that he used deer antler spray, which was said to contain a banned substance.
Ryo Ishikawa also holed out from the fairway at No. 10 and had a 67. He was among those five shots behind, still in the mix but needing something low to have any chance the way the leaders are playing.
“I don’t think you can play overly aggressive,” Koepka said. “You can’t play not to lose, either. It’s conservatively aggressive.”
Whatever it’s called, it worked.
The average score was 68.8, and Koepka had one of the 24 rounds at 67 or better. Only six players were over par, led by Camilo Villegas with a 77 that dropped him out of contention. It could have been worse for the Colombian. He tried playing a shot from the water in front of the ninth green, and the ball hit off the bank and nearly struck him.
Koepka had no such trouble. He made bogeys on the sixth and 14th hole, but otherwise was giving himself plenty of looks at birdie.
He said he has won all his Challenge Tour events from the lead. Koepka will be paired with McNeil, a pair of Florida State alums. It was last year when McNeill called Koepka to answer any questions he had about qualifying for the U.S. Open.
“We just had a nice talk,” McNeill said. “Honestly, I’ve never met him. Never seen him in person. I would like to.”
And he will, in the final round of the first PGA Tour event of the season with plenty at stake.
DIVOTS: Because 81 players made the cut, there was a 54-hole cut. Among those who won’t return on Sunday were Geoff Ogilvy, Justin Leonard, Tim Clark and Justin Thomas, who was making his first PGA Tour start as a pro. Thomas still earned his first PGA Tour check worth $9,600. ... Hideki Matsuyama had a 68 and was six shots out of the lead, and one shot behind Ishikawa. ... Since the Frys.com Open moved to CordeValle, Rocco Mediate is the only player who converted a 54-hole lead into the win.