TOWN AND COUNTRY, Mo. — After 54 holes of the PGA Championship, Rickie Fowler was three strokes behind the leader, Brooks Koepka, on Saturday.
He also approached his 36th major start with a higher purpose that has cocooned him in calmness. The day before the tournament’s start, Fowler’s friend Jarrod Lyle died at age 36 after an extensive battle with cancer.
Fowler said he had spoken with Lyle five days before his death, and he was trying to play in a way that would most honor the fun-loving Lyle: by enjoying himself and not making the result seem more important than it is.
Fowler carded a 1-under-par 69 and was tied for third with Jon Rahm and Gary Woodland at 9-under for the tournament. Koepka, the two-time reigning U.S. Open champion, posted a 66 Saturday to take the lead into Sunday’s final round at 12-under 198, two strokes ahead of Australian Adam Scott.
With its straightforward layout and receptive bentgrass greens, Bellerive Country Club has been a bigger boon to the players’ psyches than any high-priced mental coach. Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, has felt all summer as if his game was rounding into form, but until this week, the proof was not in his scores.
Scott’s best finish in the first three majors of the year was a tie for 17th at last month’s British Open. But after carding a 65 in the second round, Scott made six birdies, against one bogey, to insert himself into the hunt. He followed with another 65 in the third round, also with six birdies and a bogey.
Rahm, 23, sometimes lets his temper flare on the course, which can lead to ugly marks on his scorecard. But a benign Bellerive gave him scant reason to lose his cool: He looked calm and collected in putting together a 66.
Woodland, whose putting woes recently led Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo to say he “at times looks like a weightlifter when he has the short stick in his hand,” ranks 14th in the field in putting at the PGA Championship. He held at least a share of the lead in the first two rounds, and while his third was derailed by a triple bogey on the par-4 10th, leaving him 1-over for the day, Woodland was poised for his first top-10 finish in a major in more than a decade on the PGA Tour.
Jordan Spieth, needing a victory here to complete a career Grand Slam, carded a 69 and was at 4-under.
Spieth came into the week feeling uncomfortable at address. Before his second round, Spieth frantically tried to fix his swing on the range. He repeatedly whipped out his phone from his back pocket and handed it to his caddie, Michael Greller, who videotaped the swing for Spieth to study.
He figured something out, playing the next 27 holes in 8-under to vault into contention at 7-under overall. But on the 12th hole of his third round, after covering the front nine in 31 strokes, Spieth came unspooled.
His drive caromed off a cart path and came to rest in an area surrounded by trees. He used a 5-iron on his next shot to try to reach the green — instead of a 6- or 7-iron just to clear the trees — and his ball bounced off a branch and out of bounds, leading to a triple-bogey 7.
“It was just a perfect storm,” Spieth said. He added, “I’m extremely excited about where my game is at, just very frustrated that I’ve worked my way into a chance to win this tournament just to kind of throw it away on a bad decision.”
Tiger Woods needed three ice baths before this tournament to recover from last week’s World Golf Championships event in Ohio, and after his second round was suspended by electrical storms, he faced the unenviable task of playing 29 holes Saturday in temperatures better suited for hot yoga than championship golf. Woods acknowledged that it was mentally difficult “grinding that hard for 29 holes in this heat.”
But Bellerive’s benevolence worked to Woods’ advantage. As he noted after finishing his second round, the greens were tailor-made for whatever ailed his putting because, he said, “You can take a lot of the break out and be very aggressive.”
The 42-year-old Woods played his 29 holes Saturday in 5-under to climb to 8-under overall, four strokes behind Koepka. But it was hard for him not to dwell on what might have been: On a day when his shotmaking harked back to his glory years, Woods failed to convert six birdie putts of 20 feet or less on his last nine.
The par-5 17th was doubly deflating. Woods reached the green in two, only to three-putt from 20 feet. Mental fatigue, he said, contributed to a par that felt like a punch.
“I thought that I should have played it faster than what I was thinking,” Woods said. “I didn’t do that, I rapped it past the hole and missed the putt.”
If Woods is going to win his 15th major here — and his first in a decade — he will have to come from behind, which he never did in the first 14 victories.
“I just wish I could have got myself a couple more shots closer to the lead,” Woods said, adding, “I’ve got to shoot a low round tomorrow and hopefully it will be enough.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.