JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Of the 74 players who made the cut at The Barclays, there would have been a healthy group of solid, sensible candidates to go out in the third round, set a course record with a 9-under-par 62, and jump into contention at the first of four PGA Tour playoff events.
Kevin Chappell wouldn’t have been in that group.
Chappell has had twice as many scores in the 70s as he has had in the 60s since early July, and hasn’t finished better than 68th in his last three tournaments, or better than 28th in his past six.
Yet there was Chappell, a 27-year-old Californian in his third season on the tour, ripping off eight birdies in his final 12 holes Saturday. His bogey-free 62 established a course record at Liberty National Golf Club, and left him alone in third, one shot behind leaders Matt Kuchar (70) and Gary Woodland (68).
Chappell has yet to win on tour, but does have a few notable finishes. He tied for third at the 2011 US Open, one of four finishes of either second or third Chappell owns in his brief career. That includes a solo second at this year’s Memorial, but his game has been slipping since then.
“Since Memorial, being that close to winning, I really felt like my time was coming. Probably some added pressure from that, those thoughts. Didn’t allow me to play the game the way that I know I can,” Chappell said. “My game’s been pretty poor since Canada [three tournaments ago].”
He was pretty good on Saturday, improving his second-round score by 10 shots. Part of the wave that started the third round on No. 10 because of the weather delays earlier in the week (the second round concluded Saturday morning), Chappell opened with a birdie, then strung together five pars. No sign of a special round until he birdied the 16th, which started the surge. Birdies followed at Nos. 17, 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8. He shot 30 on the front side, his second nine.
“It was a good round of golf. It was probably one of the better ones I’ve played,” said Chappell. “Here, in the wind, if you would have told me someone was going to shoot 62 today, I would probably have laughed at you.”
The 62 matches Chappell’s low round of the year, shot in January at the Humana Challenge, an annual birdiefest. The 62 on Saturday was much more impressive; it came on a day when the scoring average was 72.014.
Maybe Mark Blackburn has something to do with it. Blackburn is Chappell’s swing coach, and also works with Heath Slocum. The last time The Barclays was held at Liberty National, Slocum birdied the final hole to beat a star-studded pack of chasers that included Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, and Steve Stricker.
“Believe me, I’ve heard the history of this event and Heath and here, and look forward to keeping Mark’s batting average as high as we can,” Chappell said.
He’ll begin the final round at 11 under, one behind Kuchar and Woodland, good friends who have combined for eight tour victories, three coming in 2013. To make Chappell’s task even tougher, he’ll be paired with Tiger Woods, tied for fourth at 8 under after a 69.
Kuchar and Woodland are comfortable in the same pairing; they were in the final threesome on Saturday, frequently play practice rounds together, and Kuchar selected Woodland to be his partner in the 2011 World Cup, when the Americans won by two shots.
“Kuch, he’s one of my best friends out here. Pretty comfortable with him,” Woodland said. “I knew what he was doing. I was just trying to make as many birdies as I could. I saw there were a lot of guys making birdies behind me, and I know I saw Kevin Chappell, so I knew they were out there.”
Like Chappell, Woodland also made four straight birdies in his round, starting at No. 6. It gave him a three-shot lead at one point, but a four-shot swing on the back nine — Woodland shot 36, while Kuchar had a 3-under 32 — left the duo tied with one round to play.
“I’ve been playing some nice golf these three days,” said Kuchar, who tied for 28th the last time The Barclays was played at Liberty National (2009), then won the event the next year at a different course. “I had just come off a big stretch of golf, really big tournaments from the British Open, Canadian, Bridgestone Invitational, PGA. I think it’s just a continuation of gearing up and working to be on my best form during that stretch, and it’s continued over to this part of the year.”
Whoever wins The Barclays might have to go low, because there just might be a 61 out there. The tournament course record has been lowered all three rounds this week: Kevin Stadler opened with a 64, Keegan Bradley had a second-round 63, and now Chappell has bettered that.
Don’t discount Chappell. He once went 61-63 at a Web.com Tour event, and has plenty of motivation: In addition to opening the playoffs with a strong start, he’s set to marry Elizabeth Petrie on Sept. 28.
“It was exactly what I needed to get back in the golf tournament,” Chappell said. “I’m excited that I was able to get the ball rolling in the right direction for a change.”