Davis Riley charges up leaderboard in search of first TOUR win at Valspar Championship – PGA TOUR

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PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Sunday at the Valspar Championship sets up as a wide-open and very interesting race: There are two players on top, Davis Riley and Matthew NeSmith, who will be gunning for their first PGA TOUR victories. Those chasing closely include a major and 14-time TOUR winner in 2017 FedExCup champ Justin Thomas and two past and proven Valspar champions (Sam Burns and Adam Hadwin).
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Riley, 25, is a TOUR rookie, and had one of those shiny penny days on Saturday at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course where pretty much everything went right. He likely had the parking spot closest to the clubhouse, enjoyed the hottest lunch, and, had there been a Las Vegas-type slot machine somewhere on campus, undoubtedly would been the one to pull the lever and collect all the riches. 
He birdied half the holes at the Copperhead on Saturday, making them from in the trees and from the sand, nine in all, to overtake NeSmith, who played his first nine holes brilliantly but failed to extend the job. Riley’s 9-under 62 was the second-best round of the tournament only to NeSmith’s 61 one day earlier, and there is no reason to think the two cannot go deep again on Sunday atop Copperhead’s receptive greens. As long as they can stand up to the nerves, that is. Riley moved to 18-under 195, which sets the tournament’s 54-hole record; NeSmith, who shot 69 Saturday, is two shots back. 
Will they be ready to shine when their Sunday moment arrives? Well, that’s an interesting question. They seem to be taking two completely different mindsets into the final 18 holes. 
Riley said he will bank on his two victories on the Korn Ferry Tour from 2020, and pull good vibes from a few marquee pairings during his rookie season. Though he counts but one top-10 finish in 13 starts, Riley has played with Jon Rahm, Adam Scott and Jason Day, among others, and Saturday played alongside his Alabama Crimson Tide big brother, Thomas, who already was winning college events when Riley was being recruited to Tuscaloosa. If anything was still ringing in the ears of Riley and Thomas by the time they sat down to dinner, it was this: “Roll, Tide, Roll!” And, of course, this from a fan off 18, a nod to Thomas’s new high-rise joggers that he put in play: “Justin, Tampa loves your ankles!!”
Thomas, who is looking for his first victory since the 2021 PLAYERS, played solidly himself on Saturday. He grappled momentum and shot 4-under 31 on the back, though a third consecutive 66 didn’t seem so spectacular when compared to Riley’s superb effort. Thomas and Burns, last year’s Valspar champion, will start Sunday three shots behind Riley; Hadwin, the 2017 champion, is five back. 
Justin Thomas’ Round 3 highlights from Valspar
“It was really impressive,” Thomas said of Riley’s magical day. “It’s a big moment for a rookie. He handled it like a rock star and made 9-under look very, very easy … barring a crazy chip-in there on 9.”
Thomas smiled. The “crazy chip-in” Thomas referred to actually was an uphill bunker shot from 70 feet that Riley threw high into the air and unexpectedly slam-dunked at the par-4 ninth, his fifth birdie in his opening nine. Even stronger was the birdie he made two holes earlier, set up by a 7-iron Riley punched beneath tree limbs from 136 yards, through a tiny alleyway to the green, to 10 feet to steal birdie. Thomas joked he was a tad envious considering he’d made double-bogey 6 from those same left trees on Friday. 
As good as Riley was playing, he still wasn’t gaining much ground on NeSmith, who made 16 birdies and an eagle in his first 45 holes of the tournament. NeSmith kept the pedal down, went out in 32, and built a four-shot advantage at one point. 
Thomas said he’d like to think that experience could tilt a hotly contested and hectic final round in his favor on Sunday, but he also knows the two players ahead of him, though winless, are quite capable. 
“It’s (experience) always very valuable when you have a chance to win,” Thomas said. “But that being said, these guys are clearly pretty fearless and playing some good golf, so it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t get it done. There’s first-time winners all the time.”
Especially in recent months, with four of five winners from the Farmers Insurance Open through The Honda Classic (Luke List, Tom Hoge, Scottie Scheffler, Sepp Straka) holding up PGA TOUR trophies for the very first time. 
NeSmith, 28, got to 18 under with his own birdie at the ninth (8 feet), and walked to the back nine having not made a single bogey all week. Then he stumbled into four of them, coming home in 2-over 37, shooting 69. 
NeSmith’s theme for this week was to remove all anxiety from what he is doing on the golf course, not be so results-oriented, and just enjoy the walk and his golf, no matter the outcome. His four bogeys over his final nine was his first turbulent stretch of the week. NeSmith’s response to it was basically one big shrug of the shoulders. 
“My goal today was to finish 18 holes and I finished 18 holes and I’m really happy,” said NeSmith. “Where we end up, we’ll see on Sunday night.”
Even when he played poorly on his inward nine, NeSmith talked as if there was a new calm about him as he played. 
“The last few holes, actually, the funny part is, I did actually feel pretty good with probably five or six holes to go,” he said. “I didn’t play very good golf, but it didn’t really matter to me … We were just going to try and put one foot in front of the other and go from there.”
Riley finished ninth in the Korn Ferry Tour’s combined 2020-21 points list to earn his promotion to the PGA TOUR last fall. Along the way, he won the 2020 Panama Championship and the 2020 TPC San Antonio Championship. Different stages, sure, but proving himself there is something he hopes to call upon as he chases a maiden PGA TOUR title on Sunday at Valspar. 
“No matter the stage, it’s hard to win a golf tournament,” Riley said. “Just being in contention and having that blood flowing is huge. Any time you can get just a pinch of that and get that experience is huge, and winning twice served me well.”
How well? The answer could be only 18 holes away. 
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