Camilo Villegas finishes strong to take 36-hole lead in Mexico

LOS CABOS – Camilo Villegas birdied his last three holes Friday and an 8-under 64 that allowed him to emerge from the pack on another low day of scoring and build a two-shot lead going into the weekend at the World Wide Technology Championship.

Villegas was among a half-dozen players battling for the top at wind-free, vulnerable El Cardonal at Diamante, the first Tiger Woods course design that has been missing the typical blustery conditions at the tip of Baja California.

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The 41-year-old Colombian, fighting to gain his full PGA Tour card, caught Matt Kuchar with a birdie on the 16th hole, then closed with two more birdies to reach 16-under 128.

Kuchar, who won this tournament five years ago when it was at Mayakoba, had a second consecutive 65.

Erik van Rooyen, who came into the week at No. 125 in the FedEx Cup, was tied for the lead with Kuchar and poised to move past him until an errant tee shot into the native area on the par-5 closing hole. He had to take a penalty drop, got back out to the fairway, hit into a bunker and made double bogey for a 64. He dropped into a tie for fifth.

Stephan Jaeger (65) and Justin Suh (65) were at 13-under 131.

Villegas broke by two shots his career-best for 36 holes on the PGA Tour, previously set at the RSM Classic three years ago. But the 64-64 start wasn’t his best ever.

He thought back to 2004 when he had just finished at Florida and went to Q-school, missing out on the second stage. The next week, Villegas said he went 61-62 at a Hooters Tour event.

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“I won the tournament by 10 shots the week after missing second stage of Q-School. It was like a bittersweet win,” Villegas said.

Stakes are high this week, too.

Villegas split time between the Korn Ferry Tour and whatever PGA Tour events he could get in this year, and he stands at No. 223 in the FedEx Cup with only three tournaments left. The top 125 have full cards for 2024; the top 150 at least have conditional status.

“I’ve been doing a lot of work. Obviously it’s nice to play good this week,” Villegas said. “One of the things just kind of sounds cliche and we always say it and every player says it when they play good, but you’ve just got to stay in the moment. Not getting ahead of yourself, not getting behind, not letting what you just did affect your emotions or what’s coming affect how you can think of the present shot.”

A win, of course, would come with a two-year exemption and a trip to the Masters and the PGA Championship. That’s still a long way off, especially with 14 players within five of the lead on a course that is giving up plenty of birdies.

The cut was at 5-under 139. Cameron Young, at No. 17 in the world the highest-ranked player in Mexico, overcame a bad stretch of bogeys on the front nine and had to birdie the par-5 18th to make it on the number.

Among those three shots behind was Kramer Hickok, who knows El Cardonal better than most in the field because he arrived over the weekend and spent six-plus hours in solitude learning the nuances of a course designed for resort play and strategy with angles and severe contours on some of the greens.

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Hickok has played bogey-free over 36 holes.

“Everyone’s starting at the same spot, so I just really wanted to get a jump start on that,” Hickok said.

Cameron Percy, the 49-year-old Australian with one eye on Q-school for the PGA Tour Champions next year, opened with a 62 and was 10 shots worse on Friday. The good start still kept him in range going into the weekend.

There were plenty of good scores, and some rough finishes.

Will Gordon was 10 under for his round until taking a bogey on his last hole at the par-3 ninth. His 63 still put him at 12 under in the group with Hickok, Chesson Hadley and van Rooyen, had a chance to post a 61 with a birdie on the 18th and instead made double bogey.

The most curious of contenders was Jeffrey Kang, who had to go through qualifying because it was in the Los Angeles area near where he lives.

Kang has traveled the world since leaving USC nearly a decade ago. The PGA Tour is the ninth tour Kang has played, mostly in Canada and various circuits in Asia. His lone victory is the Chengdu Championship on the old PGA Tour China series in 2018.

He recalls getting about $40,000 for that victory, the biggest check of his career.

“Hopefully, this is bigger” Kang said after making his first cut on the PGA Tour.

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf