SOUTHPORT – Jordan Spieth led the Open Championship by three shots and Branden Grace posted the lowest score at a men’s major in a dramatic third round at a sun-kissed Royal Birkdale on Saturday.
American Spieth fired a flawless 65 to finish on 11-under 199, three clear of his compatriot Matt Kuchar (66), while South African Grace conjured up a majestic 62 to achieve what no player had done in 441 previous majors.
But come rain or shine, Spieth has been utterly unruffled throughout his first three rounds at the Open, and with a three-shot lead over Kuchar, he knows more of the same on Sunday will bring him a third major title.
Spieth shot a blemish-free five-under-par round as Friday’s gusty winds and driving rain at Royal Birkdale made way for what could almost be considered summer weather on the Lancashire coast.
The course conditions could change again on Sunday, with the forecast envisaging stronger winds and possible rain. But on the evidence so far, Spieth could probably break par in a snowstorm.
The Texan’s confidence stays the right side of arrogance, but there was certainly no hint of fear about the 23-year-old as he contemplated his task, taking a lead into the final round.
“It’s a little bit tougher to sleep, but I’ve been fine recently,” he said after Saturday’s round. “I expect to be. If not, I can sleep during the day tomorrow; we don’t tee off until pretty late.
“But I wouldn’t rather be in any other position than where we’re at. And we have an opportunity to have a really special day on the golf course tomorrow. I’m excited about it.”
Comparisons with Tiger Woods may be premature, but it is hard to ignore that a win on Sunday would give him his third major at the age of 23 – a year younger than Woods when he secured his third major title.
Spieth won the US Masters and the US Open in 2015. But while he has those positive experiences to draw upon, he also knows that things don’t always go to plan on a Sunday.
Last year at Augusta, he led the Masters by five strokes at the turn, but a dramatic meltdown – including a quadruple bogey – cost him dearly, and he was beaten by Englishman Danny Willett.
It is typical, though, of the level-headed and thoughtful Spieth that he considers that disastrous Sunday a memory that doesn’t need to be blocked out.
“I understand that leads can be squandered quickly, and I also understand how you can keep on rolling on one,” he said.
“It was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward. And if I don’t win tomorrow, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with it was someone else’s day, and I didn’t play as well as I should have.
“And if I win tomorrow, it has nothing to do with that, either.
“You’re learning and it all goes into the mental process. And as I go in for the next 18, 20 hours, it’s about being very positive and really staying very focused on a game plan for tomorrow. Relax, smile more.
“So, tomorrow will be a day that will be emotionally draining and difficult to stay very neutral in the head, but that’s probably the most important thing for me to do.”
Meanwhile, there have been 31 rounds of 63 in the sport’s biggest tournaments, and Grace’s feat of shooting eight-under-par 62 prompted a standing ovation at the 18th green as he saluted the packed galleries at Royal Birkdale.
Grace is now joint fifth on four-under-par for the tournament.
“I honestly had no idea that was something historic,” the world number 35 told reporters.
“I knew I was playing well, and I was just in the zone. I didn’t know 62 was the lowest ever, but now it makes it even more special. If my caddie knew, he never said anything; good on him!”
American Brooks Koepka, the US Open champion, went round in 68 to finish at five-under, level with 20-year-old Canadian Austin Connelly, who continued his remarkable run at his first major with a 66.
World number two Hideki Matsuyama of Japan carded 66 to join Grace at four-under, one ahead of American world number one Dustin Johnson (64), defending champion Henrik Stenson (65), Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello (67) and American Chan Kim (67).
World number four Rory McIlroy made an early charge with three birdies, but the Northern Irishman’s hopes of a fifth major title faded with a double-bogey at the 10th hole, and he ended at two-under.
That was level with England’s Ian Poulter, who started the day three shots behind Spieth, but failed to take advantage of the conditions and made five bogeys in a scratchy 71.
Open Championship Leaderboard
-11 Jordan Spieth
-8 Matt Kuchar
-5 Austin Connelly, Brooks Koepka
-4 Branden Grace (RSA), Hideki Matsuyama
-3 Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Chan KimReuters