Chris Kirk takes Kapalua lead with final birdie. A dozen players are lined up behind him

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KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — The views off the west coast of Maui give the PGA Tour’s season opener at Kapalua a relaxing vibe. Inside the ropes, The Sentry is a lot more hectic.

Chris Kirk ran off three straight birdies on the back nine just to keep pace with 21-year-old Akshay Bhatia. Xander Schauffele had eight birdies in 11 holes to stay in the mix. Jordan Spieth, who hit the first foul ball of the year Thursday for double bogey, is now bogey-free in his last 51 holes and has made enough birdies for a chance.

Kirk gave himself a little separation Saturday with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 closing hole at the Plantation course for a 7-under 66.

He leads by one shot over Bhatia (66), with a host of others — past Kapalua champions, major champions and newcomers alike — right behind.

“You certainly can’t protect anything out here, that’s for sure,” Kirk said. “When it’s a shootout like this and the scores are really low, you just stay aggressive and just go do your thing.”

Scottie Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 play, didn’t see many putts go in and took a step back with a 71 that feels a lot higher in this tournament. He still was only three behind.

Throw in Patrick Cantlay and Collin Morikawa, and 12 players were within four shots of the lead. That was different from last year, when Morikawa took a six-shot lead into the final round only to be caught by Jon Rahm; the year before, Rahm and Cameron Smith shared the 54-hole lead and were five clear of everyone else.

Kirk was at 21-under 198 in his first time back at Kapalua in eight years. He was the PGA Tour’s comeback player of the year in 2023 from winning the Honda Classic after having stepped away for a big part of 2019 to deal with alcoholism and depression.

He starts the new year with what feels like a sprint on the side of a mountain.

Bhatia, who secured his PGA Tour card through the minor leagues and then won the Barracuda Championship, took only 27 putts for the second straight day. His only lapse was three-putting from 60 feet for par on the 667-yard closing hole.

The group two shots behind included Schauffele (65), who closed with a 62 five years ago to rally for victory at Kapalua; and Spieth (67), who won by eight shots at Kapalua in 2016. They were joined by Byeong Hun An (68).

Schauffele and Spieth know the drill. Most leads are not safe no matter what the score shows, particularly because of a dynamic closing stretch of par 5s and a reachable par 4.

“Definitely keep your head down,” Schauffele said. “There’s really no point looking at a leaderboard early on a property like this.”

Spieth made birdie from a bunker some 40 yards short of the flag on the reachable 14th, one of the most difficult shots in golf, and closed with a 6-iron into the green for a two-putt birdie.

He first came to Kapalua a decade ago and understands the flow of scoring. The trick is to avoid bogeys on the tougher holes and try to pick up a few birdies before the action starts on the reachable par-4 14th.

“Then all of a sudden it’s a sprint and you see who makes four out of the last five,” he said. “That seems to be the case and it probably will be the case tomorrow.”

That was Kirk’s plan Saturday with one wrinkle. The different wind fooled him on his tee shot down the par-5 15th, and he played it too far to the right and into the weeds. He took a penalty drop, had to lay up short of the elevated green and then hit wedge a little too strong, onto the fringe facing a putt downwind, slightly downhill and with the wind at his back.

He holed the putt for a par, ending his streak of three straight birdies and yet still feeling that he had the wind in his sails.

“To make that one after a nice run of birdies before that definitely kept the momentum going,” Kirk said.

Scheffler never had much momentum at all. He made his first birdie on the par-5 fifth, the easiest hole at Kapalua. But he had a three-putt bogey on No. 7, and hit into a bunker below the green at the par-3 eighth that led to another bogey.

Scheffler finished with a three-putt par on the 18th from just under 40 feet. The upside was being only three shots out of the lead, along with Harris English (64), Jason Day (67) and Sahith Theegala (68).

“The back nine, anything can happen,” English said. “I remember getting off to a tough start the final round of that 2021 year and got it going on the back nine and played really well coming down the stretch. I think having some of that patience will help tomorrow.”

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

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