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Originally published Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 7:31 PM

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Three-hole stretch lets Bill Haas surge into big lead

Defending champion shoots a 64 to top field by three strokes

The Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES — Bill Haas had no reason to think this round at Riviera was going to be anything special.

With an iron in his hand for his second shot, he failed to make birdie on the par-5 opening hole, the easiest on the golf course. With Riviera playing tough in warm, dry conditions on Saturday, he was part of a large group challenging for the lead.

Three holes changed everything.

Haas made a tough 30-footer for birdie on No. 9. He pitched in from 60 feet for eagle on the scary par-4 10th. And he hit a good bunker shot with little margin for error on the par-5 11th that set up a birdie.

Just like that, he was on his way to a 7-under 64 and a three-shot lead going into the final round of the Northern Trust Open.

His 64 was the best round by three shots, and it was nearly eight shots better than the average score. It put Haas at 12-under 201, leaving him in good position to become only the eighth back-to-back winner in the 76-year history of this tournament.

"It's very difficult in this game to just pull away from the rest of the field," Haas said. "You've only seen a few guys ever really do that, and those are guys like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson. So I think I've just got to stay in the moment, don't let my emotions get the best of me."

A year ago, Haas was two shots behind going into the final round and wound up winning in a playoff. This time, he has a comfortable margin over U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, who each thought they did well with 68s.

John Merrick bogeyed the 18th hole for a 70 and joined Simpson and Schwartzel at 9-under 204. Luke Donald overcame a sloppy start — three bogeys in a six-hole stretch — with four birdies on the back nine to salvage a 70 that put him four shots behind, along with Fredrik Jacobson (72).

Ryan Moore of Puyallup had a 71 for a 5-under 208 and is tied for 11th. Seattle product Fred Couples had a 73 for a even-par 213 and is tied for 45th.

The round started with 20 players separated by five shots. Thanks to Haas and his flawless play, only eight players were within five of the lead.

It might not be easy for anyone to catch Haas if the sunshine continues to bake Riviera. The fairways were so firm that tee shots were running some 50 yards after they landed, and the greens were firm enough that balls ran out an extra two feet around the hole.

When Simpson pulled out his cellphone to check the leaderboard as he sat down for lunch after his 68, he saw Haas' 64.

"So he played great," Simpson said.

OTHER TOURNAMENTS

Jiyai Shin of South Korea closed with a 1-under 72 to claim the Women's Australian Open at Royal Canberra as 15-year-old amateur Lydia Ko of New Zealand faltered in the final round with a 76. The pair started the final round six shots ahead of the field. Shin ended up with a 18-under 274 to beat Yani Tseng of Taiwan by two.

Bernhard Langer shot a 2-under 70 to take a three-shot lead with a 12-under 132 after the second round of the Champions Tour's ACE Group Classic in Naples, Fla. Taiwan's Chien Soon Lu and Tom Pernice Jr., are tied for second at 135.

• Two South Africans — Darren Fichardt (with a 65 in the third round) and Jaco Van Zyl (68) — are tied for the lead in the Africa Open in East London, South Africa, each at 15-under.

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