If Dustin Johnson is leading a tournament in putting, there’s a good bet you can find him at the top of the leaderboard. That’s the situation at TPC Harding Park after three rounds of the PGA Championship.
Johnson made eight birdies — a personal major championship best — to shoot a Saturday five-under 65 and take a one shot lead into Sunday’s final round.
Over the first three rounds he is first in strokes gained putting, gaining more than 6.5 strokes against the field on the greens.
“I definitely have experience in this situation that definitely will help tomorrow,” Johnson said after his round.
“I’ve been in the hunt a bunch of times in a major. I’ve got one major, so having that experience is definitely going to be beneficial tomorrow.”
It’s a number that most professional golfers dream of, but a number that could haunt one of the most prodigious winners of his generation.
Johnson has 21 PGA Tour wins, has reached world No. 1, and is the third player in history to record a victory in each of his first 13 seasons on tour.
Koepka will begin Sunday at seven-under par, just two shots back of the lead and tied for fourth along with youngster Collin Morikawa and veteran Paul Casey. Wedged between that formidable group and Johnson, in second place at eight-under, are long-bombing youngster Cameron Champ and Scottie Scheffler.
Tiger Woods continued his struggles in the greens on Saturday until he finally made a few putts at the end of the round. He shot a two-over 72 and is in a tie for 59th.
It wasn’t much of a moving day for Adam Hadwin or Mackenzie Hughes on Saturday. Hadwin shot a level par 70 after bogeying the 18th hole. The 32-year-old Canadian had it as low as three-under after birdieing the par-5 10th, but dropped two shots on the way in and will begin Sunday at one-under par in a tie for 34th.
Hughes shot a one-under par 69 on Saturday after making the cut right on the number Friday. He will enter the final round at even par.
Nick Taylor and Corey Conners missed the cut.
CHECK YOUR MATH
There’s a good chance Brooks Koepka will have more players to beat on Sunday than he thinks.
Last year at the PGA Championship, Koepka famously took us through his mathematical breakdown on why he doesn’t think majors are as hard to win as everybody thinks.
It went like this.
“There’s 156 in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat,” he said. “You figure about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them, just, pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.”
Of course, he went on to flatten the field last year at Bethpage Black and claim his fourth major in three years.
But there could be a problem with his math this year.
The pressure that players feel coming down the stretch on Sunday will still be immense, but with no fans in attendance expect fewer players to crumble under the weight of the moment. In particular, this year will be a great opportunity for the game’s young stars to grab their first major in relative peace and quiet, without the gallery roaring for the game’s biggest stars or even sadistically encouraging a rookie meltdown like the New York fans were doing last year at Bethpage.
Young guns Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff, and Cameron Champ might not know how lucky they are to be chasing history on an empty golf course.
MUST SEE TV
Don’t expect Phil Mickelson and Nick Faldo to be exchanging Christmas cards this year.
In what was certainly the best part of Saturday’s CBS television broadcast, Mickelson joined Jim Nantz and Faldo in the booth to call some of the action.
What ensued was as wonderful and cringe worthy as an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm as the two golf legends sparred with one another.
Phil: “Thank you, it’s nice to be here. There’s three things I do well. Play golf and talk golf.”
Faldo: “What’s the third then? You said three things…”
*Phil widens his eyes smiles and shakes his head at Faldo*
Nantz: “Leave that to your imagination, dear boy.”
Faldo: “That went right over my head.”
Phil: “Yeah, I saw that.”
It wasn’t much of a fight as Mickelson danced around the ring dropping jokes and even a few sly insults about the six-time major champion Englishman’s lack of distance off the tee (because we all know that Phil likes to hit bombs), all while offering the kind of insight that golf fans have been dying for years.
Social media instantly blew up with the idea that Nantz has found his Tony Romo of golf in Mickelson, should the 50-year-old ever want to jump into the booth. Phil’s commentary was interesting, natural and packed with information and knowledge, exactly what you would hope to get from a five-time major champion.
Faldo has one more major than Phil but very rarely gives golf fans anything more than they can see with their own eyes.
It’s lucky for Sir Nick that Mickelson seems more interested in catching the Englishman’s major total than stealing his job.
The other two? Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
But those guys have a combined 33 majors.
There have been plenty of close calls for Johnson. The three-shot lead that got away at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010. Heartbreak in the sand at Whistling Straits just months later at the PGA. A year later, it was the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s that went Darren Clarke’s way.
“Well, those, I was definitely younger, I have been out here a while now, I’ve been in contention a lot, and I’ve got it done a lot of times,” Johnson said. “Tomorrow, it’s no different. I’m going to have to play good golf if I want to win. It’s simple.”
Tomorrow can change everything. Golf, more than any other sport, is built on the promise of tomorrow. Even for the weekend duffer, there’s always tomorrow. But at 36 years old, Johnson more than ever needs to be focused on today. Focused on erasing the last “but” challenging his place in the game.
In Johnson’s way on Sunday, undoubtedly, will be his friend Brooks Koepka. The man who never lets anything slip away.
“I like my chances. When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized,” Koepka said after shooting a one-under 69. “I don’t know, he’s only won one. I’m playing good.”
Koepka seemed to be heading the wrong direction on the back nine on Saturday when he made three consecutive bogeys from hole Nos. 13-15. But the four-time major champion birdied 16 and then birdied the difficult closing hole before giving a quick wink to his caddie Rickie Elliott to finish his day in style.