Matt Kuchar's rocky finish opens door in desert at PGA West

Kuchar finishes with three bogeys on the last four holes of the Humana Challenge

Wind and rocks did bad things to Matt Kuchar on Saturday, and he wasn't even piloting a sailboat. He was playing golf.

Kuchar had held the third-round lead all day in the Humana Challenge in La Quinta. And even though he hadn't built a great deal on the one-shot lead he held after Friday, he was still cruising along nicely at 19 under par after his first five holes on the back nine of the Palmer Private Course at PGA West.

What happened from that point on meant that Kuchar would be trailing four players by one shot with 18 holes to play.

He bogeyed No. 15, but still led. He parred No. 16. Still OK.

Then he stepped to the tee on the par-three 17th and bad things started to happen to the No. 11-ranked player in the world.

The 17th is up against the mountains that block out the late-afternoon sun and provide housing for bighorn sheep. Golfers have to avoid the rocks with their tee shots, but can't steer too far left, because there is a canal there.

Kuchar did a nice job of avoiding the canal.

His tee shot stayed right, perhaps helped by a swirling wind that turned the desert paradise into a semi-paradise for a few hours Saturday. His ball clanked off the rocks, zipped left across the green and into the canal. When he barely missed a 25-footer after the penalty drop, he had another bogey.

No big deal. After all, the par-five No. 18 was next and the pros gobble those up here in the desert like munchies at a cocktail party. Kuchar had either birdied or eagled every par five in the tournament to that point.

"I hit a great drive and was in between a three- or four-hybrid," Kuchar said. "I went with a three-hybrid, trying to get it back to the hole, and [hit] a solid shot that just didn't fade."

No, it didn't. It flew over and left of the green and skipped off another rock and into the water. When he missed a seven-footer after another penalty drop, he had another bogey and had slipped down the leaderboard. His Saturday round was a one-under 71, and his 16-under total shared second place with three others.

His postmatch assessment was boilerplate golf-pro optimism.

"No really bad shots," he said. "I just made a couple of lesser quality shots…"

A result of all this was that Kuchar's misfortune vaulted one of the greatest stories in sports back into the limelight.

One of the four sharing the lead at 17 under, after Kuchar went on the rocks, was Erik Compton. He was there along with Bill Haas, Justin Thomas and Michael Putnam.

Compton is 35 and lives in Miami. He has been on and off the main tour since 2001. The main reason for that is that he is now operating with his third heart. Yes, he has had two heart transplants.

His best moment on the pro tour, other than just being able to walk the fairways, was his second-place finish in last year's U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

He takes handfuls of pills each day and jokes that some days they make him feel good and other days lousy. In interviews, he is always asked about his health and never fails to bring perspective into his response.

Saturday, after talking about his five birdies and the dicey wind that affected many shots, he said, "Today, I played with a Wounded Warrior, who is a scratch golfer and who has one leg. On the third hole, he said, 'Hey, listen, you know, you really inspired me, learning your story' … and I'm kind of speechless.

"It's very nice to be around people who get it and understand the importance of life."

Sharing the top of the leaderboard with Compton were Haas, the 2010 champion here, who shot 69; Putnam, who has been on or near the top most of this event, who also shot a 69; and 21-year-old Justin Thomas, who looks like he is 15, lives in Goshen, Ky., is in his first season on the PGA Tour and had six birdies in his round of 68.

In addition to Kuchar, they are a shot ahead of Ryan Palmer, Scott Pinckney and Steve Wheatcroft.

Defending champion Patrick Reed trails by three after a 67. Veteran Rory Sabbatini had nine birdies, no bogeys and shot up the leaderboard with his 63 to reach 14 under overall. Billy Horschel went seven under and is in the mix for Sunday's final round. Shawn Stefani tied Sabbatini for the best round of the day with a 63 and is only five back.

Sunday's final 18 holes will be played at the Palmer Private, with the pros playing without the amateurs.

Phil Mickelson faded a bit from his Friday 66 to a 68, but his 54-hole total of 205 left him only six shots back.

"When the wind was strongest, I was four under through nine holes," Mickelson said. "Then it died down and it was really a chance to go low and I just didn't take advantage of it."

He did not, however, hit any rocks.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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