AT&T National: ‘Wild day’ ends with four tied for the lead after three rounds

The walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee at Congressional Country Club cuts across the pristine practice green and past the grandiose clubhouse. There is, in those few hundred paces, a chance to think, be that productive or destructive.

“I’m just asking for one break,” Jordan Spieth said to Michael Greller, his caddie, as he made that trek Saturday. “One break.”

“Be patient,” Greller responded. “Just be patient.”

Golf owes no one, be he 19 or 90, a break, and patience is among the most elusive commodities in the game. Two holes into the third round of the AT&T National, Spieth, all of 19, had a pair of birdies and a two-shot lead. As he made the turn and pleaded for that one break, he had dissolved into a jumble of slumped shoulders and glassy eyes, trailing by five.

“It was very difficult at the turn for me to stay calm and hit good shots to start the back nine and kind of turn it around,” Spieth said. “Maybe lost a couple of shots with my emotions there, which is upsetting.”

After 54 holes, the lead of the AT&T National is shared by four different players, four different characters: Bill Haas, the accomplished tour veteran who appears so neat and tidy, but whose scorecard Saturday was a downright mess, three bogeys and a triple offset by nine — count ’em, nine — birdies; James Driscoll, the University of Virginia product who has toiled on tour since 2005 and is looking for his first win; Andres Romero, the Argentinian who was once the PGA Tour’s rookie of the year but has won just one event; and Roberto Castro, an analytical, eclectic engineer whose chip-in from 80 feet on the 18th saved one final par and ensured that absolutely nothing would be sorted out before Sunday’s final round.

“Wild day,” Castro said.

Wild enough that Spieth, whose game and demeanor at one point said he was out of it, held things together for a 74 and sits at 4 under, three shots back of the lead group at 7-under 206. Wild enough that Castro’s tee shot at the third hit a bunker so hard, it ended up three inches under the sand, and he had to take an unplayable lie. Wild enough that Driscoll was the only player among the four leaders to avoid a double or triple bogey. Wild enough that after Haas made his triple at the enormously frustrating 11th hole — a triple born with a drive right of the creek, a hack across the fairway, then an approach into the water by the green — he could trail by five shots, yet end up tied for the lead.

“Honestly, the back nine,” Haas said, “didn’t really know where I was going.”

So after all that, the lead remains where it sat at the conclusion of the second round, which wrapped up Saturday morning — back then shared by Castro and Spieth at 7 under. Already, Sunday will be a bit different. With the forecast calling for afternoon and evening thunderstorms, PGA Tour officials have moved up the tee times, with the final round to be played in threesomes off both the first and 10th tees, starting at 8:30 a.m. with the leaders on the course at 10:30 a.m.

Congressional, and its demand for equal parts patience and precision, awaits.

“Over four days here, every player is going to hit kind of a rough patch,” Castro said. “I don’t see it being easy out there.”

Spieth understands that. It’s worth remembering, too, what he said Friday after he shot a bogey-free 66 to share the lead: “I just need to sit back and say, ‘Who cares?’ It’s just a round of golf.”

Such phrases fall from the lips after a 66. But after a poor approach Saturday at No. 5 led to his first bogey in 34 holes, Spieth nearly let the game slip away from him in a series of pin pricks. In a four-hole stretch that followed, he missed four putts of 10 feet or shorter – 10 feet for birdie at No. 6, nine feet for par at No. 8, the three-and-a-half-foot come-backer at No. 8 that left him with double bogey, and an eight-footer for par at No. 9.

The culprit: The first putt at No. 8, statistically the easiest hole on the course. “It made me second-guess a couple of the other putts I had coming right after,” he said.

The lead? Poof. That changed hands when Romero made birdie to Spieth’s double bogey. When the final threesome walked to No. 10, Romero held the lead at 10 under. Spieth was 5 under.

“He’s 19,” said Castro, himself 28. “He’s a tremendous player. You can see why he’s done what he’s done.”

So eventually, he steadied himself by making birdie at the 15th then par at the final three.

“Three strokes back, that’s nothing on this course,” Spieth said. “That can be made up tomorrow.”

And right there, the optimism and exuberance of youth returned. No telling what might happen if he catches a break or two Sunday.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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