BROUSSARD — Rick Cochran III went back to basics here Saturday, and that approach — and a red-hot putter — has him in striking distance of his first Web.com Tour victory.
The tour rookie from Paducah, Ky., had four birdie putts of 12 or more feet, two of those among four straight birdies to start the third round, and holds a one-stroke lead in the $550,000 Chitimacha Louisiana Open entering Sunday’s final round.
Cochran was four strokes back of midway leader Rhein Gibson entering Saturday’s play but five birdies in his first seven holes put him into contention. He then rolled in a 15-footer for birdie at the par-three 16th and followed with a closing 18-footer at the par-four 18th, the last of which gave him a one-shot lead over fellow rookies Gibson and 19-year-old Chinese prodigy Hao Tong Li.
“My caddie told me before we started that it was basics again, so I started thinking very fundamental,” said Cochran, whose Saturday six-under 65 followed bogey-free rounds of 66 and 68 Thursday and Friday. “Keep your head still, simple as it could be.”
Sunday’s final round begins at 7:23 a.m. over the 7,006-yard par-71 Le Triomphe layout, with Cochran and Li in the final group at 1:40 p.m. Gibson and Steve Allan are in an Australian pairing in front of them at 1:30 p.m., with Allan and Harold Varner III tied for fourth at 202 and four more players at 203 gunning for the $99,000 first-place check.
Veteran and former PGA Tour winner Glen Day, former Web.com Tour winners Hunter Haas and Aron Price and reigning NCAA champion Cameron Wilson are four back. Cody Gribble, whose 64 was Saturday’s low round, is one of three at 204, while ex-LSU star Smylie Kaufman and last week’s Chile Classic winner Dawie van der Walt are both at 206.
Gibson held 18- and 36-hole leads after an opening 62 on Thursday but couldn’t find the sub-par magic of the first two rounds when he posted 13 birdies and two opening-round eagles. He missed a 6-footer for birdie that would have tied him for the lead, and his one-under 71 included four birdies but a second-straight double-bogey at the treacherous “Gator’s Jaw” 13th hole.
“It would have been nice to maybe separate myself a little bit,” the Australia native and Oklahoma resident said. “Another good round of four-, five-under would have gotten me ahead, but I’m in a good position for tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll shoot one of those rounds and see where it puts me.”
Gibson still held the lead until the 13th, a hole which bit the 81-player field to the tune of 16 double-bogeys on Saturday and played at a 4.556 stroke average.
“It’s just a difficult hole,” Gibson said. “The last two days it’s been into the wind, and any kind of mis-hit goes right and is going to be in the water. And you’re also afraid of pulling it left behind the trees, and you don’t have a second shot.”
Li is bidding to become the youngest winner on the Web.com Tour since current PGA Tour member Jason Day won at 19 in 2007, as well as the first Chinese player to win on the tour. If he does that, he can credit two par saves at the end of his Saturday round.
The Shanghai native hit his 17th-hole tee shot into a bunker but was able to get close enough to make a 9-foot par putt. His tee ball on 18 also found a right-side bunker but was up against the lip, and he had to blast out sideways, leaving him 149 yards to the pin.
His 9-iron there covered all but the final six inches of that 149 yards, leaving him a tap-in par that put him in Sunday’s final grouping.
“I just wanted to save par,” said Li, who was the third-round leader at the season-opening Panama Claro Championship. “But I hit it so solid. It was so close ... so lucky. The last two holes were important. I had bad lie, and another bad lie and saved par.”
Li had five birdies on his card including the 10th, 12th and 15th on putts of 9, 6 and 15 feet, after a three-putt bogey on the eighth that dropped him three strokes back at the time. “I had a lot of chances to make a lot today,” he said.
But it was Cochran who wielded the most magic with the putter. The 28-year-old first-time father — his two-month-old son is in his Paducah-heavy gallery — had one-putt birdies from 12, 20, 6 and 6 feet on the first four holes. He had his first bogey of the day after a loose tee shot on the par-five fifth, but had two-putt birdies on the seventh and 12th holes.
It’s not the first time Cochran’s been near the top of the leaderboard. He played in 17 PGA Tour Latinoamerica events last year and had four runner-up finishes, including two playoff losses. He also tied for sixth in the Panama event to open the season.
“I’ve been fortunate enough, especially last year in Latin America, to have my fair share of chances to win,” he said. “You have to love the pressure. There’s so many great golfers out here, I know if I’m in the lead anybody can catch me. My goal tomorrow’s the same as every day, try to hit the fairway, make some putts and make as many birdies as I can.”