SAN FRANCISCO — Dustin Johnson supplied the birdies, eight of them Saturday at the PGA Championship, the most he has ever made in his 157 rounds of major championship golf for a 5-under 65 and a one-shot lead.
Brooks Koepka supplied the needle.
Koepka recovered from three straight bogeys to salvage a 69 and stay within two shots of a leaderboard more crowded than any of San Francisco’s congested highways. At stake is a chance to become only the seventh player to win the same major three straight times. He surveyed the cast of contenders, and focused on the guy at the top.
“I like my chances,” Koepka said. “When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized. He’s only won one. I’m playing good. I don’t know, we’ll see.”
As he stepped away from the microphone, Koepka smiled and said to Jason Day, “How about that shade?” They laughed.
Too bad this isn’t a two-man show.
The final round at Harding Park figures to be wide open, just like it was on a Saturday so wild that eight players had at least a share of the lead during the third round.
Johnson lost his yardage book and still found his way through an enormous crowd of contenders. He made a double bogey on the ninth hole and still bounced back with a 31 on the tough, windy back nine.
He needed all eight of those birdies on a day of low scores, long putts and endless possibilities.
One possibility is Koepka hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy for the third straight year, which hasn’t happened since Walter Hagen won four in a row in the 1920s when it was match play. The last player to win any major three straight times was Peter Thomson at the British Open in 1956.
Koepka was two shots behind on a board that features only two major champions among the top six.
Scottie Scheffler, the PGA Tour rookie from Texas, ran off three straight birdies only to miss a 6-foot par putt on the final hole. He still shot a 65 and was one shot behind, in the final group at his first PGA Championship. Cameron Champ, who has the most powerful swing on tour, shot 67 and joined Scheffler one shot behind.
Johnson was at 9-under 201 as he goes for his second major title. For all the chances he has had, this is only the second time he has led going into the final round. The other was down the coast at Pebble Beach, his first chance at winning a major. He had a three-shot lead in the 2010 U.S. Open and shot 82.
Now he is more seasoned with experiences good (21 tour victories) and bad (five close calls in the majors).
“I’m going to have to play good golf if I want to win. It’s simple,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens. If I can do that tomorrow, I’m going to have a good chance coming down the stretch. … I’m just going to have to do what I did today. Just get it done.”
Among the cast of contenders are major champions like Koepka, Jason Day and Justin Rose, and fresh faces like Scheffler, Champ and Collin Morikawa. Also right there was Bryson DeChambeau, thanks to a 95-foot putt for birdie on his last hole. Turns out he can hit long putts, too.
Missing from all this action is Tiger Woods, who didn’t make a birdie until the 16th hole and is out of the mix for the fourth straight major since his emotional Masters victory last year.
A dozen players were separated by three shots.
Li Haotong, the first player from China to lead after any round at a major, was leading through 12 holes until his tee shot didn’t come down from a tree. He made double bogey, dropped two more shots and finished four shots out of the lead.
Johnson didn’t have smooth sailing, either, especially when he couldn’t find his yardage book.
He thinks it slipped into the bottom of the golf bag, and he didn’t feel like dumping his 14 clubs all over the ground to find it. Austin Johnson, his brother and caddie, had a spare yardage book.
Johnson shot 65 even with a double bogey on the ninth hole. Mistakes like that might be more costly on Sunday with so many players in the mix. Even those who struggled — Rose, Daniel Berger, Tommy Fleetwood all settled for 70 — are only three shots behind.
Adding to the drama will be the lack of atmosphere, this being the first major without spectators. Paul Casey said he still didn’t feel nerves from the lack of people. Perhaps that helps with younger players in the hunt for the first time. It also could make it difficult for players to know what’s happening around them without any cheers.
Then again, Johnson won the U.S. Open in 2016 at Oakmont without knowing the score as the USGA tried to decide whether he should be penalized for a potential rules violation earlier in the round. He had to play the last seven holes without knowing his score.
It’s just one example of what Johnson has endured in the majors. There was a penalty that knocked him out of a playoff in the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits for grounding his club in sand without realizing it was a bunker. He had a 12-foot eagle putt to win the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, only to three-putt for par and a silver medal.
But he’s back for another shot, and his game looks to be in order. He has the power, and on this day, he had the putting.
“I definitely have experience in this situation that definitely will help tomorrow,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in the hunt a bunch of times in a major. I’ve got one major. … Still going to have to go out and play really good golf.”