LA QUINTA, Calif. – Gary Woodland and Jhonattan Vegas realize the marathon Bob Hope Classic will come down to a sprint.
At least the weather will be perfect for a good run at their first PGA Tour victories.
Vegas birdied the final five holes Saturday to rejoin Woodland for the second straight day atop a leaderboard dominated by hungry, inexperienced 20-somethings.
Woodland and Vegas shot 66s to set up a fifth-round showdown between two 26-year-olds with tremendous driving power and little experience in such pressure-packed situations. Neither slugger had ever held a lead on the PGA Tour until this week.
"This deal is still long from over," Woodland said. "It's going to be a shootout again. The conditions will be perfect again. The greens are perfect. You're going to have to go low and get that putter hot."
Vegas fell several shots behind Woodland with a rough start on the La Quinta course before his flurry of birdies to get to 6 under, matching Woodland at 24 under for the week. Woodland was as steady as the postcard-perfect weather on the Palmer Private course in the PGA Tour's only five-day, four-course event.
"I saw the leaderboard and saw that Gary was (ahead), so I really tried to push it a little bit, and things went my way," said Vegas, who finished his round with an 18-foot birdie putt. "I stayed patient, stayed positive throughout the round, and was able to hit some really good shots in a row."
Vegas and Woodland will play together Sunday with Scotland's Martin Laird, who was two shots back, on the generous Palmer course. The ideal Palm Springs conditions, described by more than one golfer as playing in a dome, are likely to make near-perfection necessary.
"You know right from the first hole you've got to keep firing away," said Laird, who has only one PGA Tour win. "You can't play defensive golf. ... You've got to fire at flags. I don't know what it's going to take, but I think last year, 30 under won, and I would not be surprised if it was that or lower tomorrow."
Laird also shot a 66 to stay right behind the leaders, and defending champion Bill Haas jumped into a tie for fourth place with a 10-under 62 on the Palmer course. Haas, Chris Kirk, Keegan Bradley and Daniel Summerhays were 21 under.
With most of the sport's top names taking the week off or playing in Abu Dhabi, the Hope is a prime opportunity for a young player looking to make a mark in a historically important tournament fallen on leaner times despite its $5 million purse. None of the Hope's top seven leaders are older than 28 — and Vegas, Kirk, Summerhays and Bradley all were members of the Nationwide Tour's graduating class last year.
The prospect of a frantic finish intrigues both Woodland, the former college basketball player playing in his 28th PGA Tour event, and Vegas, the Venezuelan golf pioneer making just his fifth appearance. Woodland never even won on the Nationwide Tour, but plans to draw on his basketball experience and on his four tournament victories during his senior year at Kansas.
"You've got to stay in the moment, that's the main deal," said Woodland, who has never finished higher than 21st on the PGA Tour. "Even if you have a six-shot lead, these guys out here on this golf course, that's nothing. You can make up six shots in four or five holes."
Their formidable power off the tee actually hasn't been much of an asset on two of the courses, with the simpler holes requiring smaller clubs that won't overpower the holes.
Just how tantalizing are these courses? Vegas has 32 birdies in four rounds, two shy of Steve Stricker's 34 at the Hope in 2009. The PGA Tour record for birdies in a 72-hole tournament is 32.
"I didn't feel great the whole day, compared to (Friday)," Vegas claimed. "I didn't feel comfortable, but I just found a way to get it on the greens."
Although the modest Hope field — which features just six of the world's top 50 players — provides a prime opportunity for a youngster, there's a movement afoot to help the Hope regain some of its lost luster from the days when Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Clint Eastwood and a handful of U.S. presidents played in the desert. The Hope is being held without a title sponsor for the third straight year, with ever-fewer pros deigning to play in the lengthy pro-am.
After Joe Ogilvie suggested to Golf Digest that the Hope should draft Bill Clinton as its tournament host, with a commitment to expanding its charity outreach to the former president's Clinton Global Initiative, the tour issued a statement Saturday acknowledging discussions over the past several months with Clinton's various charities.
Explorations of a broad partnership include the potential for "leveraging the Bob Hope Classic as a focal point," the statement read.