Stephen Ames had seconds earlier completed making his post-round comments to the media on a back porch of the clubhouse, when a ruckus arose from beyond the hedges and flagpoles, about 40 feet away.
Ames didn’t have to look. He knew from the sound that it was a handful of his golf buddies from the Turks and Caicos Islands who had come to cheer him on.
“Get some new golf shirts and come back tomorrow,” he good-naturedly told his pals, flashing his well-known toothy grin.
Ames has plenty of reasons to smile right now. After shooting an 8-under 64 on Saturday, he stands at 15 under and owns a three-shot lead going into the final round of the 10th annual Mitsubishi Electric Classic at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth.
His pals could have a lot to cheer about Sunday.
Ames closed with a 5-under 31 on his final nine Saturday, including an eagle on the 18th hole. He leads by three shots over 2019 Senior PGA champion Ken Tanagawa (66, 12 under), by four over 2014 Mitsubishi champion Miguel Angel Jimenez (66, 11 under) and by five shots over 2009 PGA Champion Y.E. Yang (68, 10 under).
First-round co-leader David Toms shot a 70 and is tied for fifth with Brett Quigley at 9 under.
Ames said he doesn’t particularly like playing with the lead, and recalled he hasn’t done it since the last time he won the Mitsubishi Electric Classic in 2017. So it has worked for him in the past.
“It’s still you that you’re battling, you and your thoughts and your feelings and your emotions,” Ames said. “That, basically at the end of the day, is what I have to control and do a good job at. And I’m going to continue doing the same thing (Sunday).”
Ames, in search of his second win of the season, said he’s in a good place mentally. Some of that may be the result of having his son Ryan on the bag this week. It’s not the first time he’s stepped in as caddie, and it isn’t likely to be the last.
“I think he’s more excited than I am at this stage right now,” Ames said. “He’s learning a lot, and he realizes where we need to get to, which is important. It is phenomenal. It’s priceless.”
Ames and Toms, who shared the first-round lead, held joint possession of first place at 10 under through the first 10 holes. But Toms’ momentum stopped when he was robbed on a par putt at No. 11 to fall back to minus-9, and Ames made a birdie at No. 12 to take a two-shot advantage over the field.
From there Ames kept going. Another birdie at No. 15 and an eagle at the 18th, where his well-placed drive left him only 141 yards to the hole. His approach landed five feet from the hole location, and minutes later he rolled it in for an eagle.
How good is his 15-under score? It matches his 54-hole score from 2017, when he set the tournament record.
The three-shot lead will make things difficult on the rest of the field, but it’s hardly a sure thing. A year ago, Steve Flesch began the final day four shots behind the leaders and won the event for the second time.
“Just go play hard and see what happens,” Tanagawa said. “I finished with an eagle, and it’s great, but tomorrow is a new day. Who knows what it brings. The way this tour is, with all the great players out here, you never know. Anybody within two, three, four, even five shots, can win if they get hot. You never know.”
Ames said he will not change the aggressive approach that has worked all week on Sugarloaf’s quick fairways and greens.
“I’ll just continue doing the same thing,” Ames said. “Pick my place. Pick my spot where I want to hit it and get up and hit it. I’ve had very little swing thoughts going on right now, which is what’s making it very easy. My mind is very clear right now. It’s very quiet, and that’s the main thing that I’ve been really struggling with, and I found a nice way to turn it on and turn it off.”
Steve Stricker, who entered the week as the points leader of the Charles Schwab Cup, almost was invisible until the 34th hole. That’s where he aced the 179-yard par-3 with an 8-iron. He followed that with an eagle at the 18th to shoot 5-under 67, where he’s tied for ninth at 7 under.
Savannah’s Tim O’Neal shot 68 and also is tied for ninth. A PGA Tour Champions rookie, O’Neal is trying to secure his first top-10 finish. Warner Robins native Kris Blanks got in the field as a Monday qualifier and has taken advantage. He shot 68 and is tied for 13th. Blanks, who has no status on the tour, likely would earn a spot in the next non-major if he finishes in the top 10.