LA QUINTA, Calif. — Last year, Scott Stallings left the Humana Challenge early after a funny conversation that probably made his aching ribs hurt even more.
“I played La Quinta for one round and I played with Carl Pettersson and, after nine holes, he said, ‘Either you’re going to withdraw or I’m going to withdraw. I can’t watch this anymore,”’ said Stallings, forced to withdraw after tearing cartilage around five ribs.
This year, Stallings is in position to run away with his third PGA Tour title after opening a five-stroke lead Saturday. He shot a 9-under 63 at PGA West’s Jack Nicklaus course to reach 22-under 194 after three days in perfect conditions in the Coachella Valley.
“I stayed aggressive,” Stallings said. “Playing with John (Rollins) was a huge help. He’s a good guy and he was an easy guy to club off of. ... We made a lot of birdies the last couple days, and so we kind of fed off each other.”
Stallings made two eagles, hitting a 6-iron to 8 feet on the par-5 13th early in the round and holing a 20-foot downhill putt on the par-5 eighth.
“I guess you can say it’s conservatively aggressive,” Stallings said. “Like No. 8, I hit a really good drive and had 8-iron. But just because I had 8-iron to a par 5, I fired it in the middle of the green, had a 20-footer and was happy to make it.”
He had his third straight bogey-free round, putting him in position to become the first tournament winner to play 72 holes without a bogey since Lee Trevino in the 1974 Greater New Orleans Open. The 27-year-old former Tennessee Tech player opened with a 66 on the Arnold Palmer course — the site of the final round Sunday — and shot a 65 on Friday at La Quinta.
“I’ve been smart when I got out of position,” said Stallings, the True South Classic champion last year after winning the 2011 Greenbrier Classic as a rookie.
Rollins had a 64 to move into a tie for second with Stewart Cink, Roberto Castro, Charles Howell III and Charley Hoffman.
“We had a good group and the mojo in the group has been positive,” Rollins said. “It was great to see a lot of good shots, putts going in.”
Cink had a 66 on the Nicklaus course to get into the final threesome with Stallings and Castro.
“The weather’s just so perfect out there,” said Cink, winless since his playoff victory over Tom Watson in the 2009 British Open. “There really is no way to improve the conditions that you’re playing under out there. It’s the very best it could possibly be.”