GOLF: Mallinger heads to Open final round with two-stroke lead

John Mallinger smiles after competing the second round Friday on the 18th hole of the Open at CordeValle. Mallinger moved from four shots back to a commanding four-shot lead.

SAN MARTIN – It has become the norm to expect the unexpected at the Open. The 2012 edition, too, figures to pack a few more twists, turns and surprises before all is said and done.

Rain clouds parted ways for abundant sunshine, and scores covered every bit of the spectrum from 8-over, 79 to 7-under, 64, on moving day in San Martin.

Afternoon scores dropped like a led brick on the back nine, creating a buzz and quite a log jam behind John Mallinger (-15), who held firm with a rollercoaster 1-under, 70 to carry his second round lead through Saturday’s third round.

“I just didn’t have it all. I didn’t drive the ball as well as I did yesterday,” he said. “But I hung around there. Still got the lead, still in a good spot and looking forward to tomorrow.”

Mallinger, who has finished second twice in his career but has yet to notch his first PGA tournament win, struggled to get into the groove he found en route to firing a 62 – tying his career best – on Friday, but weathered his up-and-down round, picking up two much-needed birdies on No. 13 and 15.

“I had some good shots coming in, which I think is important,” Mallinger said. “…Just to stay in position where I am and have a chance tomorrow, it was kind of the goal going into this week.”

A late-day charge by Jonas Blixt (66) positioned the native of Sweden alone in second place at 13-under. Blixt caught fire on the back nine, as did many of the players Saturday, finishing birdie-birdie on Nos. 17 and 18.

“The front nine is a little harder,” Blixt said. “The back nine you can make a couple birdies. Hopefully I can finish like I did today.”

Jason Kokrak (67), aided by an eagle on No. 17, and Charles Howell III, are tied for third at 12-under.

“I think this is the first time this year I put myself in really good position, so I’m looking forward to it,” Kokrak said.

Howell III had four birdies on the front nine and erased two bogeys on the back with three more birdies to record a 66.

“I got off to a good start today and took advantage of it being a bit soft and calm,” Howell III said.

Scores figure to remain low, with more warm weather scheduled for Sunday. Ten players are within five strokes of Mallinger, setting up a all sorts of scenarios heading into Sunday’s final round, some beckoning recollections of last year’s six-hole playoff between Bryce Molder and Briny Baird, eventually won by Molder, to decide the title.

“It’ll be a shootout tomorrow,” Howell III concluded. “The greens are so soft and there will be a lot of birdies. But at least I have a chance.”

Two players, including, Vijay Singh, are at 11-under in fifth. The backup behind Mallinger goes further, too, as five others are -10.

Singh’s three birdies and an eagle on the back nine propelled the PGA Tour veteran into championship contention after a 5-under, 66.

Singh, who is in search of his first Tour victory since 2008 – the same year in which he won the FedExCup championship – has played holes 10 through 18 at 11-under par through his first three rounds.

“I have to deal with the first nine, though,” said Singh, the victim of a bogey (Saturday) and double bogey (Friday) on the Par 5, ninth. “The ninth hole has been torture for me.”

Front-nine troubles aside, the three-time Major winner continued to shred the back portion of CordeValle, closing his third round with birdies on Nos. 12, 15 and 16 and an eagle on the short Par 4, 17th, which was playing 290 yards.

Singh elected to drive the green at the fan-favorite 17th and landed his tee shot five feet from the cup.

“I found something in my putting that’s working really, really good,” Singh added. “So hopefully tomorrow I can get something going.”

Alexandre Rocha is the other at 11-under. He put together a round of 66 to enter Sunday four back of the lead.

Mallinger alluded to the getting through the front nine relatively unscathed as a key to keeping his name at the top of the leaderboard, by Sunday’s end. That keeps in consensus that the back nine is where the tournament will be won, and the front, where it could be lost.

“Well, the front nine is a little more difficult, I think,” Mallinger said. “If you can get around there a 2-or 3-under, then there are some birdie opportunities on the back. I think it’s going to be great weather. It should be a great finish. Hopefully, I end up in the same spot I am now.”

• Mallinger, Blixt and Howell III will be the final group Sunday, which will tee off at 11 a.m.

• Russell Knox, Danny Lee, Greg Owen, Scott Dunlap and Jhonattan Vegas are all -10.

• Defending champion Molder fired a 66 and is part of a seven-man group at 9-under.

• Ernie Els (69) and Davis Love III (72) are both 5-under for the tournament.

• This is the second time Mallinger has held the third-round lead or co-lead on the PGA Tour. He previously held a share of the 54-hole lead at the 2009 HP Byron Nelson Championship, before finishing tied for sixth.

• Scoring average on the front nine for Round 3 was 35.167 (Par 35) as opposed to 34.500 (Par 36) on the back nine.

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