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Kohles takes the lead in Puerto Rico with 63. A win would be one way to remain on the PGA Tour

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico (AP) — Ben Kohles had four birdies over his last five holes Saturday for a 9-under 63 and a two-shot lead in the Puerto Rico as he chases his first PGA Tour title.

Kohles was tied for the lead with fellow Virginia alum Jimmy Stanger when he hit wedge to about 6 feet for birdie on the 17th, and then recovered from two shots in the rough by making a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-5 closing hole at Grand Reserve.

Stanger was behind him and three-putted for bogey from 12 feet on the par-5 15th. He bounced back with a birdie on the 17th and shot 67.

He was two shots behind along with Brice Garnett (68) and Matti Schmid (68).

The winner Sunday gets a spot in The Players Championship next week and the PGA Championship in May, but not in the Masters because the tournament is being held the same week as a signature event at Bay Hill.

Kohles was at 18-under 198.

The 34-year-old Kohles was player of the year on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2023, the third time he has graduated from the minor leagues to the PGA Tour. The previous two times, he didn't come close to keeping his tour card.

One way to change that is to win. A victory would give him a two-year exemption, perhaps the biggest perk of all.

“It's the same game,” Kohles said, referencing his two Korn Ferry wins last year. “We're just playing golf.”

He looked up to the task in strong wind that usually blew straight across. He still managed nine birdies and kept bogeys off his card. His closing stretch began with a 35-foot birdie putt from just off the 14th green. He made an 18-foot birdie on the next hole, got up-and-down for par on the 16th and then finished with his two birdies.

Joe Highsmith, who had a two-shot lead after 36 holes, went 12 holes without a birdie befor finishing with one to salvage a 71. He was three shots behind.

This also is a big week for Garnett, whose lone PGA Tour victory was in the Dominican Republic in 2018, another opposite-field event. But he only has past champions status on the PGA Tour, and it's tough to find starts. This is his first tournament of the year.

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