RALEIGH Harold Varner III remains in a pleasantly unfamiliar situation going into the final round of the Rex Hospital Open at TPC Wakefield Plantation.
The East Carolina and Gastonia Forestview High product shot a 70 on Saturday, good enough for a share of the three-way tie for the lead – at 202 after 54 holes – for the first time in his Web.com Tour career.
Varner, a tour rookie whose best finish was a tie for sixth at the WNB Classic in Midland, Texas, three weeks ago, had never held the lead after 36 holes of a Tour event before Friday either.
“I was up-and-down for sure, but I’m right where I need to be and I’ll make the most of it,” Varner said of Saturday’s round. “I learned a lot today. I just hit some bad drives real quick. I’ll improve on that tomorow. There’s another day, thankfully.
“It’s good. I’m excited. I just didn’t finish very well. I just have to handle my emotions. I’ve never been in this situation. ... I need to have a chance to win with nine holes to go. If you have that chance you were prepared and executed. If I do that I’ll have a chance to win.”
Byron Smith and Hunter Haas – each also looking for their first Tour victory – are tied with Varner atop the leader board. Smith climbed back into immediate contention with an 8-under-par 63 on Saturday, one off the course record 62 set by Rob Bradley in 2003. Haas shot a 4-under 67.
Smith started his charge with consecutive birdies on No. 2 through No. 5.
“It was one of those deals where I knew if I could get the putter warmed up we could have a good one out here,” Smith said. “I kept the ball striking going and then the putter finally showed up today.
“You try to keep cruising in that same state of mind that you’ve been in and not get ahead of yourself and not get too excited and ... do something you wouldn’t normally do.”
Haas said one more good round should get it done.
“I’m happy with the way I’ve played,” Haas said. “It was a bogey-free round. I feel like my tempo was a lot better today, and I controlled the pace of my swing. ...
“You have to adapt to what the course is giving you. The greens aren’t firming up too much, but just enough that you can play a couple of different shots.”
Roberto Diaz and Scott Gardiner are tied for fourth at 203.
Smith and Haas will play together in the final pairing at 1:05 p.m., following Varner and Diaz 10 minutes earlier. The first group goes off the first tee at 7:01 a.m.
Max Homa, the 2013 NCAA medalist at California who had been one shot off pace after the second round, was 3-over on Saturday and is tied for ninth at 207.
Duke graduate Ryan Blaum shot a 69 and is tied for sixth at 8-under.
“Maybe a good round tomorrow could make some noise,” said Blaum, who is on pace for his first Tour Top-10 finish. “I’ve just been solid tee-to-green, really. I’m hitting the ball well, hitting a lot of greens and giving myself a lot of chances. I’m not exactly putting great, but once the putter gets hot I figure I can go really well out there. This course fits my eye pretty well, and I’m hitting it long enough to get over some bumps and some bunkers.”
Tony Finau, whose cousin Jabari Parker played basketball at Duke, shot a 68 and is in eighth place one stroke behind Blaum at 7-under.
Cary’s Ben Kohles shot a 70 and is tied for 28th place at 4-under.
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