With galleries gone amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, can that third-round leader, serial major contender and familiar geezer, 36-year-old Dustin Johnson, hit more TPC Harding Park fairways than his 43 percent (18 for 42) in three rounds so far and hold off the 11 guys within three shots of him, many of them pups?
If so, Johnson might run off with the 102nd PGA Championship, seeing as he carved a 65 to reach 9 under par and a one-shot lead Saturday even with his waywardness.
“I have been out here a while now,” he said. “I’ve been in contention a lot, and I’ve done it a lot of times. Tomorrow, it’s no different. … It’s simple; I’ve got to hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens.”
In the quiet where it can be hard to tell who’s winning — no roars from yonder, no signs of scores carried hole to hole, smallish electronic scoreboards — the 2016 U.S. Open champion will try to refrain from looking. “Yeah, I’m going to try my best not to do that,” he said. He’s also trying not to repeat the kind of all-too-human Sunday sagas that befell him at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay near Seattle (an excruciating missed putt to fall out of a playoff) or the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin (a two-stroke penalty for unintentionally grounding his club).
He spent Saturday in the great traffic near the top and wound up nudging above it. Around him were 24-year-old Scottie Scheffler, a Texan at 8 under after his 65; and 25-year-old Cameron Champ, a Californian who knows the weather in his bones and tied Scheffler at 8 under with a 67; and 23-year-old Collin Morikawa, a California Berkeley graduate who already won once and made a further playoff this summer and whose 65 put him at 7 under.
Morikawa sat in a three-man knot with 43-year-old Paul Casey, a longtime talent seeking his first major win in his 64th try, and 30-year-old Koepka, who has mastered the things about as well as any man can, winning a stunning four of the past 11 and the past two PGA Championships.
In fact, when fielding a question on whether getting the second major feels harder than getting the first, Koepka looked up and said of Johnson in fine gamesmanship, “Well, if you look at the top of the leader board, I’d say yes.” He cited the “expectations” that come and added, “The second one definitely is a little bit tougher as you can see from the top of the leader board.”
With the chance to become the first to win three straight editions of one major in 64 years, Koepka reassembled his round Saturday with the kind of sturdy intestines that shine out of his on-course demeanor. He followed a glaring three straight bogeys on Nos. 13 through 15 that would have upset most men with, of course, birdies on Nos. 16 and 18 and damned-near on No. 17.
“I’m playing good, so I like my chances,” he said.
If that and his needling of the top of the leader board didn’t provide enough enticement, the six guys at 6 under featured former No. 1 Justin Rose, former No. 1 Jason Day, habitual contender Tommy Fleetwood and week-in-week-out contender Tony Finau. They did not include Haotong Li, the 25-year-old second-round leader, but Li did refrain from the kind of free fall many would have projected from a greenhorn. (He shot a 73 to sit at 5 under.) And they did not include Tiger Woods, whose putt-inconvenienced 72 left him at 2 over and meant a fourth straight major Sunday out of contention since his stirring 2019 Masters mirth.
Those at 6 under did include, however, two tournament winners from the post-hiatus portion of the PGA Tour calendar: 27-year-old Daniel Berger and 26-year-old Bryson DeChambeau, the latter having arrived at 6 under through the fine carnival of a 95-foot birdie putt to close the round. DeChambeau called it “the longest I’ve ever made in any competition, ever.”
Further, he said the noiselessness might benefit the pups as they navigate Sunday and its pressures without so many pressures coming through the ear canals.
“I think you’re right in that regard,” he said to the questioner. “It’s not the crazy roars that sometimes we hear and albeit I have heard that before. I think I finished close to top 20 at Augusta or like top 25, I think, at Augusta my first year out there. So I experienced a little bit of it. But I think for those guys, definitely. I think it will definitely be a benefit for them that there’s no crowds, no roars going on.”
Without roars, as the players rose and fell on the board, a Californian who would have drawn a lot of them, Morikawa, constructed his sublime 65 free from any heckles he might have received from San Francisco Giants fans as a Dodgers fan from greater Los Angeles. He got this rave from playing partner Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion: “He played the kind of round today that I woke up thinking I’d like to play. It was really, incredibly solid. He was in complete control, really, of all parts of his game. He never was in a lot of trouble.”
So he looked like a serious contender in the quiet, even if his familiarity with a course conducting its first major didn’t seem to help out. “No. I wish it did,” the 2019 Cal graduate said in a tough business curriculum. “But other than knowing how to get here off the freeway without my phone and not get a ticket by the police, no, it has not helped me at all.”
Then again he, like the 20-somethings bunched near him, doesn’t need all that much help.
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