By JOHN NICHOLSON
LA QUINTA, Calif. — Last year, Scott Stallings left the Humana Challenge early after a funny conversation that probably made his aching ribs hurt even more.
“I played La Quinta for one round and I played with Carl Pettersson and, after nine holes, he said, ‘Either you’re going to withdraw or I’m going to withdraw. I can’t watch this anymore,’” said Stallings, forced to withdraw after tearing cartilage around five ribs.
This year, Stallings is in position to run away with his third PGA Tour title after opening a five-stroke lead Saturday. He shot a 9-under 63 at PGA West’s Jack Nicklaus course to reach 22-under 194 after three days in perfect conditions in the Coachella Valley.
“I stayed aggressive,” Stallings said. “Playing with John (Rollins) was a huge help. He’s a good guy and he was an easy guy to club off of. … We made a lot of birdies the last couple days, and so we kind of fed off each other.”
Stallings made two eagles, hitting a 6-iron to 8 feet on the par-5 13th early in the round and holing a 20-foot downhill putt on the par-5 eighth.
“I guess you can say it’s conservatively aggressive,” Stallings said. “Like No. 8, I hit a really good drive and had 8-iron. But just because I had 8-iron to a par 5, I fired it in the middle of the green, had a 20-footer and was happy to make it.”
He had his third straight bogey-free round, putting him in position to become the first tournament winner to play 72 holes without a bogey since Lee Trevino in the 1974 Greater New Orleans Open. The 27-year-old former Tennessee Tech player opened with a 66 on the Arnold Palmer course — the site of the final round Sunday — and shot a 65 on Friday at La Quinta.
“I’ve been smart when I got out of position,” said Stallings, the True South Classic champion last year after winning the 2011 Greenbrier Classic as a rookie.
Rollins had a 64 to move into a tie for second with Stewart Cink, Roberto Castro, Charles Howell III and Charley Hoffman.
“We had a good group and the mojo in the group has been positive,” Rollins said. “It was great to see a lot of good shots, putts going in.”
Cink had a 66 on the Nicklaus course to get into the final threesome with Stallings and Castro.
“The weather’s just so perfect out there,” said Cink, winless since his playoff victory over Tom Watson in the 2009 British Open. “There really is no way to improve the conditions that you’re playing under out there. It’s the very best it could possibly be.”
Castro shot a 69 at La Quinta, Howell had a 67 on the Palmer course, and Hoffman had a 67 at La Quinta. Castro had a share of the lead after each of the first two rounds.
“I got a little out of rhythm on the back, but still hit enough good shots to feel good about it,” Castro said.
Brian Stuard missed a chance to become the sixth player in PGA Tour history to shoot 59, settling for a 62 on the Nicklaus course. After eagling the par-5 16th to reach 11 under for the day, he needed to birdie the final two holes for golf’s magic number. He parred the par-3 17th and bogeyed the par-4 18th to end up in an eight-player group at 16 under.
“I kind of thought it after I hit my tee shot on 17,” Stuard said about a 59. “I had a chance there and just kind of left it on the top edge.”
Phil Mickelson made the cut by two strokes at 11 under in his season debut. After birdieing Nos. 16 and 17, he hit his second shot on the par-5 18th into the water, but salvaged a par for a bogey-free 66 on the Palmer course. The tournament is his first since the HSBC Champions in early November in China.
Mike Weir, the 2003 champion, closed with a triple bogey on the Palmer course to miss his 17th consecutive cut. After birdieing nine of his first 13 holes — including six in a row — to reach 11 under, he bogeyed the par-3 fifth and collapsed on the par-4 ninth. Needing a par to make the cut, he hit his drive left into the water hazard that runs the length of the hole, took a penalty drop and hit another ball into the pond.
The Canadian has finished only one tournament — a tie for 70th in the AT&T National in July 2011 — in his last 29 events. He opened with a 67 at La Quinta and shot a 75 on Friday at the Nicklaus course.
Stallings is making his third straight start of the season. In Hawaii, he tied for 13th in the Tournament of Champions and missed the cut in Sony Open
He birdied the par-3 17th for a share of lead, then birdied Nos. 4-6 to pull three strokes ahead. The eagle on No. 8 pushed the advantage to five, and he missed a chance to make it six when his 10-foot birdie try on the par-4 18th slid by the right edge.
He had a simple plan for the final round.
“Go do the same thing I’ve done the last three days,” Stallings said.