LOS ANGELES — Bubba Watson started with a 7-iron that stopped rolling 18 inches from the cup for a tap-in eagle . He chipped in for birdie. He moved the ball left and right, whatever Riviera required, and finished with a 6-under 65 for a one-shot lead Saturday in the Genesis Open.
Yes, golf is much easier for him than basketball.
And the highlights are going to look a lot better than when he took part in the NBA All-Star celebrity challenge Friday night.
Watson fired an air ball from just inside the top of the key (he says it was supposed to be an alley-oop and no one heard his instructions to cut to the hoop). He passed on an open jumper to drive toward the basket, only for Tracy McGrady to reject him.
“All I thought about was the bad golfers in the world when they stand on the tee and they see water to the right. Where’s their ball go? Way to the left,” Watson said. “So when I saw him, all I saw was this is my moment to get hurt. This big tank is about to hit me.”
Watson looked much more efficient swinging a golf club.
He was at 10-under 2013 as he tries to end a two-year slump that dates to his last victory two years ago at Riviera. Sunday will be the first time he has had the lead going into the final round since that event.
“The trend is going in the right direction, and that’s what I’m looking for,” Watson said. “If I don’t win tomorrow, or if I do win tomorrow, I’m still going in the right direction.”
He will be in the final group with Cantlay, the former No. 1 amateur in the world and polar opposite of Watson.
Cantlay thrives on his ability to keep his head on the shot in front of him, and to keep his emotions from swinging too much — swinging anywhere, really — in either direction. He ended his round with a 55-foot birdie putt for a 69 to get within one shot of Watson.
Cameron Smith (65), Kevin Na (67), Graeme McDowell (70) and Tony Finau (68) were two shots back.
Suddenly in the mix was defending champion Dustin Johnson, who was going nowhere until he made the turn and had a quick chat with Austin, his brother and caddie.
“I looked over at AJ and I said, ‘We’ve got 27 holes to see how good we are. We can get back in this thing if we play really well,’” Johnson said. He made eagle on his way to a 29 on the front for a 64, and Johnson wound up four shots off the lead.
As much attention as Cantlay’s long putt on the 18th gets, it was a series of pars on the front nine that saved him.
That started with a short-sided bunker shot and a 10-foot par putt. He missed the green left on the par-3 fourth hole and hit a lofted chip to 3 feet. He made a 10-foot par putt on No. 5 and another one that length at No. 7.
“That was huge for the momentum,” he said.
His best work came on No. 6, the par 3 with the bunker in the middle. It goes in the books as a two-putt par. It was so much more.
Cantlay pulled his tee shot to the left side of the green, with the pin on the other side of the bunker. Cantlay figured he could putt around the high side of the bunker that would assure a 15-foot par putt from below the hole. Instead, he pitched it off the green and over the bunker, past the hole and up the slope, and then it rolled down toward the hole and narrowly missed.
It was so close that Cantlay began to run toward the low side of the bunker to watch, a rare display of excitement.
“I was able to get so much height on it off that tight, downhill lie off the green that I thought it would be pretty good when it was in the air,” Cantlay said.
He kept a clean card on the back nine, opening with two birdies and closing with the big putt on the 18th, and he was in good position to win before family, friends and fans with UCLA gear that remember his days as a Bruin.
The nature of Riviera, with its firm turf after a week under the sun, made it difficult for anyone to get too far away. Fifteen players were separated by five shots going into the final round, though the task gets tough with Watson’s history.
He won in 2014 by not making a bogey over the final 36 holes. He won again in 2016 during another week rubbing shoulders with the stars.
Justin Thomas played before a mostly quiet crowd after two days with Tiger Woods, who missed the cut. Thomas overcame a few mistakes for a 67 and was four shots back. Phil Mickelson had a 67 and was five behind. Jordan Spieth had nine straight pars between birdies on the par 5s and shot 69. He was seven back.
Rory McIlroy, who also played with Woods, had a 73 and fell out of contention.