Jim Furyk leads after three rounds, but PGA Championship is anyone's game
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- It all comes down to this, the last round of the last major championship of 2013, and we still have no idea who's going to win the 95th PGA Championship.
It could be a 40-something whose only major title came 10 years ago. Jim Furyk suffered through some heartbreaking finishes last year at the U.S. Open, the Bridgestone Invitational and the Ryder Cup, and now he's put himself in position to win another big one as the 54-hole leader at Oak Hill.
It could be a player whose last name became a verb earlier this year. Jason Dufner, the creator of Dufnering, shot a course-record 63 on Friday, but he had some issues on the tricky Oak Hills greens in the third round and followed it up with a one-over 71.
It could be a Swede who rose to as high as fourth in the World Ranking, fell out of the top 200 and is back on form again and playing some of his best, sweet-swinging golf. That would be Henrik Stenson, who sits two back.
It could be the reigning Masters champion. Though four back, Adam Scott is as formidable as any name on the leaderboard.
It could be another 40-something golfer who considers himself semi-retired: Steve Stricker, who is tied with Scott. Then there is one of the best players who has never won a major. Lee Westwood is six back and tied with the overlooked defending champion, Rory McIlroy. Or a relative newcomer, Jonas Blixt, could pull off a Sunday surprise. The Swede quietly sits three back after a bogey-free 66.
This is what we do know: Tiger and Phil aren't winning.
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A long-anticipated showdown, which was already pretty much a pipe dream, officially went up in smoke on Saturday when Mickelson, your newly minted British Open champion, stumbled with a triple bogey and a double bogey en route to a 78 that dropped him to 72nd place, ahead of just one of the 75 players who made the cut. Woods, your newly minted Bridgestone Invitational champion, struggled with all parts of his game during a one-birdie, four-bogey round of 73 that dropped him to 49th.
"I didn't play very well," Woods said. "That's golf. We don't play well every week. Unfortunately, it happened to be this week."
Golf's two biggest names are beyond final-round miracles. But McIlroy, the other member of the game's great triumvirate, charged into contention in what probably counted as the biggest news of the third round.
McIlroy ended a long run of dismal play with a birdie-birdie finish and a 67 that moved him into a tie for seventh. He's still a bit of a long shot, but he at least should have the leaders' attention.
"It's getting there," McIlroy said of his confidence. "It was good to feel the sort of rush again."
McIlroy's most impressive move was finishing with the back-to-back birdies on arguably the most difficult holes on the course. The long putt and chip-in were followed by what were probably the two loudest roars of the afternoon, and the exciting finish was reminiscent of the form he displayed when he won the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA with stunning ease.
"Making a birdie at 17 is like an eagle," McIlroy said, "and then to follow it up with another on the last is even better."
His improved play was keyed by his short game, which has been sharp for a while. "It's just a matter of getting my long game in shape," McIlroy said. "I wouldn't say that was my best ball-striking round out there by any means, but I got it up and down when I needed to. I did what I needed just to make the cut yesterday, then to go out and play the way I did today, it's been a good stretch of holes."
Mighty Oak Hill, which took a hit to its fearsome reputation after soft conditions made greens receptive and led to low scores during the first two rounds, bit back in the third round as bright sun dried the course and light breezes made shots a little more challenging. There were still low scores -- Dustin Johnson's 65 was the best, but it wasn't a boat race like the first two rounds.
Woods and Mickelson fell out of contention. They weren't the only ones who disappointed. So did Matt Kuchar, who was five over par through 11 holes and shot 76, and U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, who started three back but slipped to a 77 and dropped out of contention.
Here's how the leaders stack up for Sunday's finale:
Furyk. The 43-year-old missed the cut in the last two majors but showed signs of life with ninth-place finishes the last two weeks, at the Canadian Open and Bridgestone. He's from Pennsylvania and has always had a penchant for classic, tree-lined courses. He's also tough -- tough enough to bounce back from some gut-wrenching losses and tough enough to recover from back-to-back bogeys early in the third round to post 68.
"I'd always rather be ahead," Furyk said. "If I've got a one-shot lead, that's one less shot I've got to make up."
Dufner. He looks like he'd rather be Dufnering than hitting putts on some of these deceptive greens. It was a quiet year for him until mid-summer. He finished fourth at the U.S. Open, fourth at Bridgestone and posted that scintillating 63, matching the record for the low score in a major championship. He built a three-shot lead early on Saturday but let it slip away, and he thought he'd missed his par putt at the 18th, only to see it topple in. The placid Dufner, who lost in a playoff to Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA, didn't so much as crack a grin. Maybe that kind of stoicism is what wins a PGA. A win here could lead to Dufnering, the Sequel.
Stenson. The lanky Swede is one of hotter golfers in the world, definitely the hottest without a win to show for it. He tied for third at the Scottish Open, was second at the British and second at Bridgestone, and he is playing beautifully consistent golf. He racked up 13 pars on Saturday and looks like he has no intention of backing up. It was an easy 69. He's playing for history, and he and Blixt know it. "No Swede has won a major before, and we're definitely increasing the chances with two guys up there," Stenson said. "So we're going to go out there and try our best. It's a new day tomorrow. I'm just excited to be in this position once again."
Scott. He exudes so much more confidence since his playoff win at Augusta. He was third at the British Open and seemingly non-plussed about letting that one get away for a second straight year. He battled to within a shot of the lead on Saturday, then double-bogeyed the relatively easy 16th hole when he drove it into the trees and didn't chip out of trouble on the first try. He found more bark off the tee at the 17th but drained a 20-footer to save par. He shot 72.
Stricker. Despite playing with an injured hamstring from a water-skiing accident two weeks ago, the 46-year-old Wisconsin native plodded around in even-par 70 and put himself in position to win his first major. With his putting skills, you can never count him out. "There are a lot of great players up there," Stricker said. "Hopefully, I get off to a good start and get in the mix real early."
Blixt. He's 27 and was a hockey player growing up before he switched to golf. After playing collegiately at Florida State, he broke through with his first win last year, then quietly followed it up with another win last month at Greenbrier. The public may not be familiar with him but with two Tour victories, he is tested. He'll also be staying away from the caffeine before the final round.
"I drank coffee this morning and got really jacked up so the first few holes felt a little different," Blixt said. "Luckily, it kind of settled down, and I was able to play my own game. It's a nice little kick in the morning sometimes. It was nice to calm down after the third hole, where I made a long putt for par to keep the momentum going. No coffee tomorrow. Absolutely not."
Caffeine won't be necessary on Sunday. The final round should be thrilling enough. At the end of the day, however, one of these players will probably be reaching for the champagne.