SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The household names gave way Saturday to three up-and-comers and an unknown from China who owes an assist to Arnold Palmer.
The rising stars are Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, and they sit atop the PGA Championship leaderboard heading into today’s final round.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson? They slumped from the fringes of contention to irrelevance.
Watney, a big hitter from Northern California and longtime pupil of swing guru Butch Harmon, blitzed Whistling Straits for eight birdies and a 6-under 66 that leaves him three shots clear of Johnson and McIlroy at 13 under.
How will he avoid the never-been-there-before syndrome?
Johnson blew a three-shot lead at the U.S. Open in spectacular fashion, shooting a final-round 82.
“I’m going to put the tee in the ground on No. 1 and just focus on that shot,” Watney said. “It’s going to be a long day, a tough day, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
Putting has been Watney’s nemesis, but he needed just 25 strokes in the third round.
As well as he played, Watney’s effort was not even the day’s most spectacular.
Wen-Chong Liang took advantage of the tame conditions to fire an 8-under 64, the new competitive record at Whistling Straits. He made eight birdies and saved par on No. 9 – his final hole – by sinking an 18-footer that prompted a fist pump.
Liang, 32, shot a 60 in a 2008 Asian Tour win, but he indicated that this performance was bigger.
“This is special because it’s a major,” he said through an interpreter. “And it makes people realize that there are professional golfers in China.”
Liang began playing at 15 on a Palmer-designed course in his hometown of Zhongshan. He didn’t have much of a choice on the venue. Hot Spring Golf Club, which opened in 1984, was the first built in China.
Liang has thrived in Asia but fared just decently in the United States. He has two top-30s in three PGA Tour events this season and missed the cut at the 2007 PGA Championship, his only major.
His biggest challenge: jet lag.
“I arrived Sunday night, and it took me two days to get over that,” he said.
Perhaps that explains his progression from 72 to 71 to 64.
Woods has carded rounds of 71-70-72, a huge improvement over last week’s miserable performance at Firestone.
But Woods needs binoculars to see the top of the leaderboard. He’s 10 shots back. The culprits in his third round: He played the par-5s in 1 over and misread three early putts.
After going wide left with the flat stick on No. 4, he held out his left hand and began talking to himself.
“I stuffed it in there and made nothing,” he said of his early holes. “I was playing too much break.”
Woods needs to climb over 30 players to claim his 15th major, but he’s not giving up just yet.
“People have shot (in the) 50s this year,” he said with a laugh.
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