PACIFIC PALISADES, US: Bubba Watson fired a four-under par 67 in Saturday’s (Sunday in Manila) third round of the PGA Northern Trust Open to take a one-shot lead over three Americans, including Dustin Johnson, whom Watson edged for the 2014 title.
Two-time Masters champ Watson seized the outright lead with a birdie at 17 on the same Riviera Country Club course where he shot 64-64 on the weekend two years ago to beat Johnson by two strokes.
“I am very happy,” Watson said. “It is all about the steadiness on the greens.”
Johnson is tied for second with second-round leader Jason Kokrak, who shot a 70, and Chez Reavie, who had a 69.
Watson, ranked sixth in the world, finished 54 holes at 12-under 201.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, making his Pacific Palisades debut, and former world number one Adam Scott of Australia are part of a group of five tied for fifth at 10-under, just two strokes back. McIlroy and Scott both shot 67s.
Watson’s best finish this season is a tie for 10th at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He stumbled at Pebble Beach last week in the third round and missed the 54-hole cut.
The third round has been a problem for Watson in his last three outings as he shot 73s in Maui and Phoenix and 74 at Pebble Beach.
But the 37-year-old from Florida is back on track this week and Riviera has been good to him in the past.
“This three-week stretch has been tough,” Watson said. “There was a lot of negative vibes out there.
“Pebble was very difficult because I haven’t been there in so many years, so I pressed there. You get excited and you want to do so well.
“Phoenix I didn’t make very many putts, Pebble I didn’t make too many putts. But then around here, I haven’t made too many mistakes around the greens.”
After his birdie on 17, Watson got up and down on 18 for par with a superb 100-foot chip from off the green that landed two feet from the cup.
“Nobody expected me to hit the shot that good,” Watson said.
The shot drew a loud cheer from the huge gallery on the grassy hill overlooking the green at 18 that was taking advantage of a clear-sky afternoon and warm temperatures.
“It is better than booing me,” Watson joked. “I guess being a past champion here they respect that. They know you can play and they appreciate a past champion.”
Watson seized the lead with a birdie on the par-five 17.
His tee shot sailed 321 yards to the fairway. The second shot landed in the rough, 55 feet from the pin. He got on the green and sank a three-foot birdie putt.
– McIlroy in title hunt –
Considering the history of the event and with the leaderboard crowded as it is, 72 holes might not be enough to determine a winner. There are a dozen golfers within four shots of Watson.
Seven of the past 15 tournaments at Riviera have gone to a sudden-death playoff, including three in the past four years.
US Open runner-up Johnson certainly put himself in the mix for that long-desired Riviera win with a round Saturday that included five birdies and one bogey.
Besides finishing second to Watson in 2014, Johnson lost a sudden-death playoff to James Hahn last year.
“This is a tournament that I really enjoy playing,” Johnson said. “I am definitely happy with my position.
“You have to attack the golf course when you can. There are a bunch of difficult holes where four is a good score.”
McIlroy, who is trying to reclaim the world number one ranking from Jordan Spieth, made his lone bogey of the day on the par-four third hole. He then settled in for his third straight round in the 60s and said the tight leaderboard will make for an exciting Sunday.
“You have to try and play a solid round of golf and see where the chips fall. If you shoot the lowest score, then that’s great,” he said.