Golf / Sports

Villegas charges, but Crane maintains FedEx St. Jude lead

Veteran Ben Crane, playing confidently with a retooled swing, and fifth-year pro Troy Merritt, seeking his first PGA Tour victory, may be the favorites to win the rain-plagued FedEx St. Jude Classic.

And based on how the first three days of this tournament have gone, that's weather-permitting, of course.

Crane entered Saturday's delayed third round with a four-stroke lead and maintained it before play was suspended for a third straight day because of threatening skies. Crane, who has led since the opening round, had completed six holes and was 1-under for the round and 13-under for the tournament.

Merritt, who did not play on the PGA Tour the past two years, remained in contention at 9-under. He was at 2-under through seven holes when sirens sounded to clear the course.

"What an opportunity I have," Crane said. "Certainly at the beginning of the week I never thought I would have been here."

As for Merritt, who had made only three of 12 cuts entering the FESJC, he's enjoying being in the hunt.

"Anything can happen on the final day," he said. "We've seen six-shot leads falter on the last day."

In third place at 8-under is Knoxville, Tenn., resident and tour rookie Peter Malnati, who completed seven holes of the third round.

But the golfer who made the biggest move Saturday was one who hasn't been in the spotlight in the past few years after once being tabbed one of the sport's future stars. Colombia's Camilo Villegas, in 24th place after the first round, shot a second-round, six-under 64 to vault into a tie for second.

If Villegas needed confirmation he was back to contend for his first tour title since 2010, it came late in the second round shortly after peeking around a tree on the 17th fairway.

Villegas had a difficult approach from the right rough about 175 yards to the pin, one that required a deft touch to avoid a tree and a bit of good fortune to slightly hook its way back toward the green.

Villegas's execution was perfect.

The ball settled 17 feet from the pin and Villegas calmly sank the putt for the first of two straight birdies to close his second round and move into contention for the first time this season.

"That was a great shot," Villegas said. "I'm in the rough just behind the tree and I know the ball is going to jump (off the club with no spin) so it better bounce short of the green. And not only that, but I have to hook it out of the rough, which is tough when the wind is coming straight left to right.

"I hit a 9-iron that just bounced perfect. I had maybe 15 feet for birdie and just trickled it in. It's one of those (birdies) you don't really expect any day, but I'll take it."

Villegas' 64 -- the low second-round score and his lowest of the season -- followed an opening-round 68. He had a bogey-free second round, but couldn't maintain the momentum. He was 1-over through six holes Saturday when play was suspended.

Before Saturday's third round began -- in the middle of the afternoon -- 122 golfers had to complete their second round. Villegas and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen were at 8-under 132. One shot back were Malnati.

Villegas shot first- and second-round scores in the 60s for only the second time in 20 events and TPC Southwind may provide the boost his struggling game needs. Villegas has no top 10 finishes this season and only two in his past 67 starts, but finished 10th at last year's FESJC and third in 2011.

"I've always played good here and I feel like I've been building up to this the last three weeks," said Villegas, referring to a grip change among other minor changes. "I'm starting to cover the ball a little less and hit it more on line, which helps. I gave myself a lot of chances today and made some putts."

In his first 36 holes, Villegas had nine birdies and only one bogey.

When the rain-delayed second round finished early in the afternoon, Crane held firm to a lead he had built through two rounds in which he remarkably avoided a weather stoppage. That good fortune ended Saturday evening after six holes.

Crane's 12-under-par 128 withstood solid second rounds from Goosen and Villegas. Goosen backed an opening-round 66 with another 66, narrowly missing birdies on his final two holes to put additional pressure on Crane.

"Overall, I'm very happy with the round," Goosen said. "It would have been nice to make another birdie or so coming in. I had my chances on the last three holes."

(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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