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William McGirt stars at Riviera and takes 54-hole lead for 1st time in his career

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. - William McGirt had never matched par in his two previous trips to Riviera. Now he's one round away from his first PGA Tour victory.

McGirt opened with eight birdies in 13 holes on a day when everything felt easy. He wound up with a 6-under 65 on Saturday in the Northern Trust Open, giving him a two-shot lead going into the final round.

At stake for the 34-year-old McGirt is his first trip to the Masters — he has played in only one major — and a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour.

Right behind him is just about everybody.

McGirt was at 12-under 201, two shots clear of George McNeill and Charlie Beljan.

McNeill, whose two wins were in the old Fall Series and an opposite-field event, started with an eagle and picked up a final birdie on the par-3 16th for a 66. Beljan, who lost in a playoff at Riviera last year to John Merrick, belted a 3-wood into 8 feet for eagle on the 11th hole and shot a 68.

The leaderboard was about as crowded as the 405, which was reduced to two lanes right off Sunset Boulevard. Twelve players were within five shots of the lead, which can be easy to make up at Riviera, especially with a leader new to this position.

Jason Allred, the feel-good story this week after Monday qualifying for his first PGA Tour event in more than three years, had a 67 and joined Brian Harman (68) at 204. The group at 8-under 205 had star power — Jordan Spieth (67), Dustin Johnson (69) and Jimmy Walker (67), who is going for his fourth win of the season after winning last week in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-am. Also in that group were a pair of Masters champions, Bubba Watson (64) and Charl Schwartzel (68).

Behind them were a pair of former champions at Riviera, Bill Haas and Aaron Baddeley.

"It's just 18 more holes, and whatever is going to happen is going to happen," McGirt said. "All I can do is go out and play the best I can."

He did that beautifully in the third round, with help from the most important club in his bag. McGirt made a simple birdie on the easy par-5 first hole, then made birdie putts of 20 feet and 25 feet on the next two holes. After a bogey from the bunker on No. 4, he knocked in another 25-foot birdie putt. McGirt said he told his caddie, Brandon Antus, "I just want to hit it to 30 feet all day — seem to be pretty good from that distance so far."

The only mistake was a long three-putt for bogey on the 15th, but even then he escaped trouble with a hybrid out of the rough that narrowly cleared the bunker and went onto the front part of the green.

McNeill and Beljan also have never been to the Masters — McNeill, a former club pro, won the Frys.com Open before Augusta National began offering invitations to fall events. Beljan's lone win was at Disney two years ago (also in the fall), best remembered for his panic attack in the second round that sent him to the hospital.

Allred last played a PGA Tour event at Pebble Beach for the 2010 U.S. Open. He went to college up the coast at Pepperdine, and with a third child due at the end of the month, decided to try Monday qualifying for Riviera. He got in, opened with a mediocre 73, and it's been on the upward trend ever since — a 64 on Friday, and five birdies with much on the line Saturday to get in the second-to-last group.

He choked up talking about the support of his wife and the challenge of sticking with a game that drive players to quit. Allred's goal for the week has been to stand over every shot and have fun with it, and that seems to have worked.

This week already has been more than he could have imagined — though he thinks about it a lot.

"I need to be honest, it's totally blown them out of the water," he said of his expectations. "But also to be honest, even when I go out to practice, whether it's to prepare for a gate way tournament or this week, I still have that belief in me that I have in me to win big golf tournaments. At times, even I have a hard time believing that over the years, but it sure is fun to be out here and be able to have a chance."

Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Sask., shot a 72, leaving him 14 back at 215.

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