SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Whistling Straits was there for the taking. So is this PGA Championship.
Nick Watney took over the lead Saturday with two quick birdies and never let up until he had a 6-under 66, giving him a three-shot lead over Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy in a strong showing by golf’s next generation.
When three long days along Lake Michigan finally ended, the contenders were short on major experience.
Watney, who had to scramble for a bogey on the 18th hole after an aggressive play, practically seemed like an old man compared with some of the players chasing him.
Johnson is 26, seasoned slightly by his memorable meltdown at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open. He found enough accuracy to go with his awesome power for a 67 to work his way into the final group in a major for the second time this year. Johnson was tied with McIlroy, the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland who also had a 67 and looks poised to deliver early on his promise of Europe’s next big star.
None of the top six on the leaderboard have ever won a major.
The last time the top six contenders were this green in the final major of the year — “Glory’s Last Shot” — was in 1992.
Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont., and Calgary’s Stephen Ames both missed the cut after finishing their second rounds Friday.
As for Tiger Woods? His only hope is to shoot his best round of his strange season on Sunday and try to earn a Ryder Cup berth.
Woods scrambled brilliantly in the morning to finish off the second round with a 70 to get within five shots, then opened the third round by stuffing his first couple of iron shots. He couldn’t make a birdie, however, and had to rally for a 72 on a day when the average score was 71 in soft conditions and relative calm.
Woods wound up 10 shots behind. He likely will need to finish at least in seventh place alone to make the Ryder Cup team.
“I just want to play a good round and see where that puts me,” Woods said.
Watney was at 13-under 203, in the lead at a major for the first time in his career after any round.
The only player among the top six not in his 20s was the biggest surprise of all — Liang Wenchong, a 32-year-old from China who set the course record at Whistling Straits with a 64. He didn’t start playing the game until he was 15.
Some of these guys already were dreaming of winning majors at that age.
Liang was at 207 along with 22-year-old Jason Day of Australia, who had a 66; and 25-year-old Martin Kaymer of Germany, who has top 10s in the last two majors. Kaymer had a 67.
“There’s some really good players that haven’t won a major,” Watney said.
“And all the guys that have, at one point they hadn’t won, either. So you’ve got to start somewhere. And hopefully, tomorrow will be my day.”
Golf appears to be trending that way.
Five of the last six major champions had never won one before, the exception Phil Mickelson this year at the Masters. To see so much inexperience at the top — not to mention youth — is not nearly as surprising in a year in which 27-year-old Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open at St. Andrews, and 30-year-old Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland won at Pebble Beach.
“I guess you could say the younger guys are starting to play a lot better,” Johnson said. “We’re starting to contend in majors. We’re definitely moving forward, that’s for sure.”
Major championship experience is lurking.
Former Masters champion Zach Johnson shot a 69 and was in a group at 8-under 208 that included former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk (70) and former PGA champion Steve Elkington (67).
The course was such a pushover that 19 players shot in the 60s, and the average score was just over 71. But at least everyone could see, ending two days of fog delays that forced some to play 30 holes on Saturday.
Watney has only two PGA Tour victories, the most recent last year at Torrey Pines, and while he has top 10s in two majors this year, he was never a factor in either one.
It sure didn’t look that way Saturday, when he came out firing.
He birdied the first two holes with wedges inside six feet to jump past 36-hole leader Matt Kuchar, who didn’t make a birdie until the 16th hole and shot a 73 to fall six shots behind. Watney then ran off three straight birdies starting on the par-5 fifth, perhaps his best shot a five-iron to 12 feet on the tricky par-3 seventh.
Watney led by as many as four shots until he offered a sliver of hope at the end, driving into deep rough, hitting into more thick grass on the side of the hill, and hacking to the front of the green for a bogey.
There was a scramble to keep pace, and terrific entertainment in the group that featured Johnson and McIlroy, among the most talented youngsters on either side of the Atlantic. They combined for 11 birdies, with Johnson playing bogey-free.
McIlroy won the Quail Hollow Championship early this year by closing with a 62. He also tied a major championship record at St. Andrews when he opened with a 63. That was lost in the wind a day later when he shot 80, although the kid rallied to tie for third.
A victory Sunday would make McIlroy the youngest major champion since John McDermott won the 1911 U.S. Open at age 20.
“I’ll approach it the same way as I’ve approached the last three days,” McIlroy said. “I’m going to go out there and play my game. That’s all I feel I have to do. I’ve just got to go out there and play the way I’ve been playing the last three days and just let things take care of themselves. If I hit enough good shots and hit enough good putts tomorrow, it might just be my day.”
Mickelson continued to hit tee shots all over the course, and it finally caught up with him in a round of 73 that put in a tie for 48th.
Woods almost certainly will end a second straight year without a major.
Even giving himself a chance on Saturday was a minor miracle. He hit only five fairways, putted for birdie on only half of his holes and made every hole an adventure. Standing behind the 17th green, where Woods hit a 4-iron right at the flag on the dangerous left side of the green for birdie, caddie Steve Williams shook his head.
“In my 32 years as a caddie, this is the greatest 70 I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. Before heading to the 18th tee, he added, “And if he bogeys the last hole, it will be the greatest 71 I’ve ever seen.”
Woods made par, but only after hitting a huge cut with a five-wood from a bunker that was sunken below the fairway, leaving his 60-foot birdie putt inches short. “I’m right back in the ball game,” Woods said, who finished his second round at 3-under 141, only five shots back.
As has been the case for so much of the year, however, no one can ever tell who is going to show up.
Two hours after he finished his second round with 25 putts, he missed birdie putts from inside 10 feet on the opening two holes and soon was spiralling down the leaderboard.
“I didn’t make any putts early when I stuffed them in there,” he said, “and didn’t get any momentum.”