PGA Championship - Round Three

SAN FRANCISCO – There’s a terrific mix atop the leaderboard as the 102nd PGA Championship, golf’s one and only major of the 2018-19 season, cruises into a final round that should produce an epic big bang. We have seasoned veterans shoulder to shoulder with spunky twentysomethings far too talented to be intimidated. And one cool gunslinger hanging around at the saloon doors who owns more majors (four) than all the rest of the top 12 players combined. 

Dustin Johnson, 36, is a likely future Hall of Famer who rarely shows a pulse, and he will lead the way on Sunday at TPC Harding Park. Johnson is an immense talent who many believe should own more than a single major championship (2016 U.S. Open). He has been a runner-up in all four, and he has had enough of that. A sizzling second-nine 31 led Johnson to a brilliant 5-under 65 Saturday, and at 9-under 201, and he’ll take a one-shot lead into the final round over youngsters Scottie Scheffler (65) and Cameron Champ (67). 

A cast of thousands, or so it would seem, lurk not too far behind. In that pack is Brooks Koepka, two shots back, who is trying to become the first player to win back-to-back-to-back PGA Championships since Walter Hagen in the 1920s, or about the time America was inventing its first traffic signal. (Hagen actually won four straight PGAs, in match play.) Not since Australia’s Peter Thomson at the Open Championship in 1954-56 has a player won any of the four major championships three consecutive times. 

Koepka, who recently celebrated his 30th birthday, didn’t get a whole lot going on a blustery Saturday when many players around him were finding birdies. In fact, at one point he stumbled to three consecutive bogeys at holes 13-15 and was reeling. But Koepka never stays down for long. He bounced back with a tricky 5-footer that was affected by winds at the short 16th and made birdie for the second consecutive day at the 491-yard finishing hole, this time producing it from the fairway instead of using his superpowers from the deep right-side fairway bunker. 

Winning majors is all about momentum, and as good as Johnson has been putting, and playing, Koepka feels he also has some momentum in his corner.

“Sixteen was nice,” Koepka said after shooting 69. “I thought that was probably the toughest putt I had all day just because that wind, you're kind of right there in that open area and the wind is pumping off the right. It was kind of a weird read where I felt like if you started it on the right edge, it would stay, but if you didn't, it could snap. So to make that I thought was big, and maybe just a little bit of a confidence boost in the putting for the last two holes.

“And 18, just hit a good shot (6 feet right of the hole). Nice to walk away with a birdie there and carry it over to tomorrow.”

Johnson lost his yardage book at one point on the back nine, but there are times he seems so clicked onto autopilot that he doesn’t really require one. (His younger brother, Austin, who caddies for him, luckily had a spare.) Johnson is more known for his ballstriking prowess than his putting, but this week at Harding Park, on near-perfect greens, his strokes-gained putting number through three rounds (+6.705) has been a difference-maker. 

Johnson owns six top-3 finishes and 17 top 10s at majors, yet Sunday will mark only the second time he has taken an outright lead into the final round of a major. He led the 2010 U.S. Open and shot 82 on Sunday. Don’t count on that scene again. He did say one thing he needs to do better on Sunday to close the deal is to hit more fairways, which would help take some pressure off the putter. 

“I have been out here awhile now,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in contention a lot, and I've got it done a lot of times. Tomorrow, it's no different. I'm going to have to play good golf if I want to win. It's simple; I've got to hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens. If I can do that tomorrow, I'm going to have a good chance coming down the stretch on the back nine.”

Scheffler, who was playing the Korn Ferry Tour this time a year ago, and Champ were solid again on Saturday. Scheffler has made 18 birdies on the week, making eight of them on Saturday. He is a tall, smooth Texan who doesn’t seem in a rush, though winning a first major at 24 would seem rather expedient. Champ, 25, is a bomber. The harder he swings at it, he has learned, the straighter he hits it. He shot 67 on Saturday, and sees no reason why Sunday can’t be his time, his moment. He has won two times on the PGA Tour.

“I've done everything I possibly can,” said Champ, who is from Sacramento, less than two hours away, and has played plenty of golf in the Bay Area. “I'm just going to stick to what we've been doing. I have been playing well. All aspects are improving, and for me that's really the key, just to see improvement. Tomorrow, obviously if I shoot even par or if I shoot 6 under, the score is going to be what it's going to be. But as long as I stick to myself and stick to what we're trying to do each and every shot, then I can accept that.”

In all, there are 19 players within five shots of Johnson’s lead. Collin Morikawa, who attended school at nearby Cal, and Paul Casey are with Koepka at 7 under, two shots back. Another group at 6 under includes major winners Justin Rose and Jason Day, as well as Ryder Cup competitors Bryson DeChambeau, Tony Finau and Tommy Fleetwood. All are looking for that one magic round. So is Koepka, and he has produced them before, with more frequency than all the rest. At last year’s PGA at Bethpage Black, Johnson tried to run down Koepka. Now those roles are reversed. Know this: The chaser doesn’t lack for confidence. 

“I mean, I like my chances,” Koepka said. “When I've been in this position before, I've capitalized. I don't know, he (Johnson) has only won one. I'm playing good. I don't know. We’ll see.”

Yes, we’ll see. Could be epic. 

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