Kuala Lumpur: American Brendan Steele fought into a share of the third round lead with Justin Thomas following a birdie slugfest at the US$7 million CIMB Classic on Saturday.
Steele, chasing a second PGA TOUR victory, produced a blemish free six-under-par 66 at the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club’s West course to earn the 54-hole lead with halfway leader Thomas, who birdied his closing two holes for a 67.
American Kevin Na, the Asian Tour’s Rookie of the Year in 2002 and now firmly established on the PGA TOUR, launched himself into the title mix for a third straight week with a nine-birdie round of 64 that left him one back of the co-leaders.
Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, ranked 15th in the world, shot a 68 to lie joint fourth with James Hahn (64), Brian Harman (66) and Spencer Levin (68) in the CIMB Classic, which is jointly sactioned by the PGA TOUR and Asian Tour.
Asian Tour Order of Merit leader Anirban Lahiri of India shot a second straight 67 to lie in equal 16th position, some eights off the pace in what is also his first event as a PGA TOUR member.
Such has been the low scoring on the West course this week that Steele and Thomas established a new 54-hole tournament record with their staggering 20-under-par 196 aggregate.
The 32-year-old Steele knows he must keep his foot on the pedal if he is to emerge triumphant at the CIMB Classic on Sunday. “The scores are going to be low. So you're going to have to shoot a really good round. There're still a lot of guys who can win, so just go out and keep doing everything that I've been doing and stay aggressive,” said Steele.
Two weeks ago, Steele also led into the final day at the Frys.com on the PGA TOUR but shot a disappointing 76 to miss out on a win. “I was pretty comfortable at Frys and then it all started kind of spinning out of control and I didn't have a very good final round,” he said.
“I learned a lot from it. Feel like I'm in a better place now, mentally. I’ll be trying to be a little bit more patient and a little bit more positive, not kind of put so much pressure on myself.”
Holding a one-shot overnight lead, the 22-year-old Thomas, who is good friends with world number two Jordan Spieth, started strongly with an outward 32 which included four successive birdied from four. He dropped bogeys on 12 and 16 before recovering with two closing birdies.
“Those two birdies were huge,” said the world number 64, who shot a course record low 61 on Friday. “I felt like I played really well for some stretches. I had some holes I didn't hit it well, but I hit a lot of good putts that didn't go in. So, it was nice to get that putt to go on 17 and finish on 18, finish on a good note.”
Seeking a first PGA TOUR title, the former All-American star is eager to secure a career breakthrough, having finished third two weeks ago. “This is where you want to put yourself at every event. I'm just going to use my past learning experiences in the other events I've played in and just try to go out there and hit a bunch of fairways. I'm not driving it very well this week. I feel like if I can hit more fairways, I can attack a little bit more,” said Thomas.
Na is enjoying his return to Malaysia where he won his maiden Asian Tour title in 2002. Last year, the Korean-American finished joint runner-up at the CIMB Classic and a nine-birdie round, which included a slam-dunk birdie from off the 10th green, propelled him into contention.
The 32-year-old has also finished runner-up in the past fortnight on the PGA TOUR, something he hopes will improve on Sunday. “Eight times in my career I finished second. Well, I got to keep the streak alive, don't I?” joked Na, whose lone win in the U.S. was at the 2011 Shriners Hospital Open.
“Worst case, I win, right ... if I don't keep the streak alive. That's the attitude I'm trying to have. I love this golf course. Malaysian fans have been very nice to me. And also, from my first win being here when I was like 19, so I have great memories of Malaysia.”
Matsuyama rolled in a birdie on 18 to end the third round three back. “The birdie at the last hole was really important because it still kept me in the tournament. I still have a chance to win,” said the 23-year-old. “What really hurt was the missed putts at 15, 16 and 17. I wish I could have those back. But at least I'm within striking distance.”
Scores after round 2 of the CIMB Classic being played at the par 72, 6,985 Yards Kuala Lumpur GcC course (am - denotes amateur):
129 - Justin Thomas (USA) 68-61.
130 - Brendan Steele (USA) 67-63.
131 - Spencer Levin (USA) 67-64, Hideki Matsuyama (JPN) 65-66, Scott Piercy (USA) 62-69.
132 - Stewart Cink (USA) 68-64.
133 - Brian Harman (USA) 70-63, Kevin Na (USA) 67-66.
134 - Troy Merritt (USA) 68-66, Jason Gore (USA) 66-68, Adam Scott (AUS) 68-66.
135 - James Hahn (USA) 70-65, Morgan Hoffmann (USA) 67-68, David Hearn (CAN) 70-65.
136 - Kyle Reifers (USA) 70-66, Ryan Moore (USA) 67-69, Keegan Bradley (USA) 66-70, Jim Herman (USA) 70-66, Kevin Kisner (USA) 71-65, Patrick Reed (USA) 68-68.
137 - Scott Hend (AUS) 67-70, Branden Grace (RSA) 67-70, Daniel Summerhays (USA) 71-66, Paul Peterson (USA) 70-67, Alex Cejka (GER) 66-71, Sergio Garcia (ESP) 70-67, Anirban Lahiri (IND) 70-67.