The wind was up and birdie totals were down yesterday at TPC at Avenel after two straight days of record-breaking scoring in the Booz Allen Classic. But halfway leader Adam Scott remained the one constant, expanding his advantage to six shots going into today's final 18 holes after shooting a 67, his third straight score in the 60s in his attempt to win his second tournament of the season.
A day after Scott hit an astounding 18 greens in regulation (34 of 36 the first two days) and made nine birdies in a spectacular 62, the 23-year-old Australian was not quite that zoned in during the third round.
But one last three-foot birdie putt at the 18th after a 310-yard drive into the wind left him at 18-under 195 through 54 holes. His lead is the largest in this event since Greg Norman went into the final round with a seven-shot advantage in the 1984 Kemper Open at Congressional and won by five. Scott also tied the 54-hole record score at Avenel set by Hal Sutton in 1991.
Only three players in PGA Tour history have taken a six-shot lead into a final tournament round and lost. The last to do it was Norman, Scott's idol growing up. Scott employs former Norman caddie Tony Navarro, who was on Norman's bag when he blew up at the '96 Masters, shooting a 78 in the fourth round and finishing second to England's Nick Faldo.
Scott, with the second-largest 54-hole lead of the season, will be paired in the final group today with Washington native Olin Browne.
Alone in second place, the St. Albans graduate posted a 71 for 12-under 201, his best 54 holes of what has been a mostly non-productive season. Browne, a 35-year-old veteran, knows Scott will be extremely difficult to catch and smiled when he said "maybe we could slip him something in his food tonight."
"Look, you never know what's going to happen in this game," Browne said. "Some days you make everything you look at, and some days you can't throw it in the ocean. He's obviously playing beautifully, but my job isn't to worry about being six back. My job is to go out and play really good golf tomorrow and do the best I can. . . . If he shoots two or three under, nobody is ever going to catch him."
Doctoring his Saturday night dinner still might not be enough to slow down Scott, the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 15 in the world.
Scott, who had never seen this course until he arrived here on Tuesday, had a two-shot lead going into the final round of the Players Championship in March, shot 70 in the fourth round and posted a one-shot victory over Ireland's Padraig Harrington.
"At the Players, I really felt I played the best I've ever played," said Scott, whose swing instructor is Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods's former teacher.
"I was hitting the ball so well, and I really felt I could do anything I wanted to with it. The putting felt very natural at the Players. I think I've still got a couple of things to work on here before tomorrow and just get comfortable out there and get off to a nice start. It's close. I'm definitely playing very well."
Scott, who set a 36-hole tournament scoring record of 14 under Friday, had his worst round of the week so far, but so did many of his closest pursuers as breezes swirled in the 15- to 20-mph range, particularly later in the day as the leading groups made their way around the back nine. The wind also helped dry out greens, making shots at tucked pins extremely risky.
At one point, '99 champion Rich Beem had tied Scott for the lead at 15 under when he birdied the 11th hole, a group up ahead. But Beem suddenly was scattering shots all over the property on the way to four straight bogeys starting at the 472-yard 12th and finished with 72 and 10-under 203 for a share of fifth place.
"I'm still kind of in a funny haze starting from hole 12," Beem said. "There are no excuses for my game. I got in a bad rhythm and that's it."
Charles Howell III, who set the tournament course record of 61 on Thursday, missed a three-footer for par at 17 and a 20-footer at 18 for his only bogeys of the round and was in a tie for third place with a 72 and 11-under 202. He'll start seven shots behind and will play just in front of the two leaders with Arron Oberholser, in with a 68, his third round in the sixties this week.
Back in the pack, 20-year-old Kevin Na, the youngest player on the PGA Tour, had his best round of his rookie season, a 64 that vaulted him to 10-under 203, tied with Beem and 2003 champion Rory Sabbatini, who made a seven-footer to save par at No. 18. Veteran Tom Lehman was at 12 under through his first 11 holes, but three bogeys down the stretch left him tied for seventh at 71 -- 204 Browne was hanging in there with Scott for most of the day, trailing him by only three shots through the first 15 holes of the round. But a gust of wind came up on Browne's second shot into the 467-yard 16th hole and knocked it 20 yards short of his target and into a bunker. Browne could not get up and down from there and made his first bogey of the tournament to fall four behind.
The most significant swing of the day between the playing partners came at the 444-yard 18th hole. Browne said he was between clubs on his approach to the green and again knocked his second shot in the bunker. He had a difficult sand shot, got it out to 20 feet and missed the putt for par.
Scott, meantime, smacked a dead-solid drive down the middle of the fairway and hit his second-shot 9-iron to three feet. He made that birdie putt, and that two-shot swing pushed Scott's lead from four to six. It also left Browne raving about Scott's all-around game.
"I'm going to watch him hit every shot [Sunday]," Browne said. "The guy's swing is awesome; I think I might be able to learn something. He's pure, and he's playing well, and he's playing with confidence. Every shot starts right down the line, whether it ends up where he's aiming. The guy is a beautiful golfer and he was predicted for this quality of play. He's owning up to that."
Scott was particularly pleased with the way he got through his final four holes of the day in even par, when the wind really became a major factor.
"We haven't played them in the wind yet, and the pins are in some tough spots," he said. "If you went at the pins like you had been the last couple of days, you could get in trouble. I managed to scramble through there with no damage, which was the difference between me and a couple of the other guys."
Scott has developed a reputation as a closer. With a 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour and the European tour, he's won six of his seven tournaments, including the last five.
"If I just go out and play quality golf, I think it's pretty hard to catch up out there, especially if the wind is blowing," Scott said. "Even if someone does come at me, I think I'm playing well enough that I can hopefully hold them off."