CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Zach Johnson had the slightest feeling of panic Saturday when he saw his 7-iron hug the left side of the 17th green, wondering for a moment if he would stumble for the second straight day along a three-hole stretch called the “Green Mile.”
Relief set in when he saw his ball on green grass, and the 12-foot birdie that followed made a world of difference.
Tiger Woods faltered on the final holes for the second straight day with two bogeys. George McNeill did the same. And when a storm system cleared and the third round finally finished, Johnson had a two-shot lead at the Quail Hollow Championship.
Now comes the hard part.
“I’ve got a two-shot lead. I’m happy to be there,” Johnson said. “At the same time, on this golf course, that’s a matter of one hole. Maybe even one shot.”
Johnson’s par-birdie-par finish – this one day after he went bogey-bogey-bogey – gave him a 4-under 68 and a two-shot lead over Woods, McNeill and Lucas Glover, all of whom dropped at least one shot over one of the toughest closing stretches on the PGA Tour.
Johnson was at 11-under 205 and in position to win for the second time this year.
The final two groups, including Johnson and McNeill, had to wait out a 1 hour, 12-minute storm delay before finishing the 18th hole. PGA Tour officials blew the horn to stop play right after Woods staggered to the finish line with a 70.
Woods birdied all the par 5s, including a two-putt from 12 feet on the 15th hole that put him in the outright lead at 11-under par for the first time in a third round that featured seven players atop the leaderboard at some point.
That he would drop two shots at the end was not terribly shocking, given the difficulty of the holes.
What bothered Woods was he had a 7-iron in his hand both times – a poor approach to the 17th that led to a three-putt from 60 feet, and a slight shift in the wind that kept his ball right of the green on the 18th, followed by a poor chip to 6 feet and failure to save par.
“That’s not the way you want to finish,” Woods said. “But I’ve got a shot going into tomorrow.”
He’s not alone.
Glover got into the mix with an eagle on No. 7 and did not drop a shot until he pulled his tee shot near the creek on the 18th, missed the green to the right and took bogey for a 68.
McNeill also was bogey-free until he three-putted from 40 feet on the 17th, then found a fairway bunker on the 18th that kept him from reaching the green, giving him a 70.
A dozen players were within four shots of the lead, a group that does not include Phil Mickelson.
He was only two behind going into the third round, but missed three birdie chances on the opening five holes, and right when Lefty seemed to get it together, it all came undone. He missed the green to the right on the par-5 10th, where the pin was tucked to the right on a difficult green. From 60 feet away, it took him five shots to get down. He made double bogey and wound up with a 75, leaving him eight shots out of the lead.
“That was where the turning point was,” he said. “I felt like I tripled a hole, and just didn’t get it going from there.”
U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee, the 18-year-old in his second tournament as a pro, appeared to be poised to make a run as the youngest winner in PGA Tour history. He was among those tied for the lead midway through the round and was bogey-free on a tough day until he was swallowed up at the end.
He pulled a 7-iron left into the water on the 17th to make double bogey, then dropped another shot at the 18th for a bogey. All that work, and he only had a 70 to show for it. Even so, he was five shots behind at 6-under 210.
“The last two holes really let me down,” Lee said. “New start tomorrow.”
Johnson already has won this year in Honolulu and will play in the final pairing with Glover, whose only PGA Tour victory came four years ago at Disney when he holed out a bunker shot at the 18th.
Even so, Woods only two shots behind is enough to get their attention.
“I’m only two back, which is nice,” Woods said. “I’ve got a good shot at it going into tomorrow.”