Sergio Garcia survived the fast, slippery greens of Bethpage Black for a 2-under 69 and a two-shot lead over Nick Watney going into the final round of The Barclays on Saturday.
Garcia fell out of the lead with a three-putt bogey on the third hole, but he didn’t have another one the rest of the round on a Bethpage Black course that lived up to is tough reputation with greens that reminded players of another course on Long Island.
Shinnecock Hills came up more than once. That’s when the USGA lost control of the greens in the final round of the U.S. Open, and even had to water one green in the middle of the round. Bethpage wasn’t that bad, but it was close.
Watney, who made five putts over 15 feet, three-putted the final hole when his putt went racing 10 feet by the cup. He had to settle for a 71, giving him another round in the final group with Garcia.
”Hopefully, the pins will be in spots where there’s some grass on the greens and the ball will stop rolling,” Watney said.
Tiger Woods, who started the third round three shots out of the lead, three-putted for bogey three times on the front nine alone. He had another three-putt on the 14th hole, this one from 15 feet, and had a 72 that put him six shots behind.
”I don’t remember blowing putts by 8 to 10 feet,” Woods said. ”So that was a bit of a shocker.”
Garcia went four years without winning on the PGA Tour and now has a chance to make it two in a row. He was at 10-under 203, and only four players were within four shots of the lead.
Kevin Stadler played early, when the greens still had some moisture, and had a remarkable round of 65 without any bogeys. He moved up from a tie for 42nd to alone in third place, three shots behind. Brandt Snedeker started strong and closed with nine pars, which was equally impressive, for a 68 that put him four back.
Phil Mickelson might still be in the game. Twice a runner-up at Bethpage Black – both times in the U.S. Open – Mickelson played early Saturday and had a 67. That eventually put him in the large group at 4-under 209 that included Woods, Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood and Charl Schwartzel, an impressive collection of players who have either won a major or been No. 1 in the world.
Garcia can set the tone for the final round.
”If Sergio goes out and shoot 4 or 5 under, you’ve just got to tip your hat,” Watney said.
His third round was worthy of praise. Of the final 18 players who teed off, Garcia was the only one to break 70.
”If you play well, you can shoot a decent score, but as the day goes on, the course just gets harder and harder,” Garcia said. ”No doubt playing in the morning makes it a little bit easier. Even though the greens were still firm, they were probably not as firm and probably not quite as fast. It’s just we know what Bethpage Black is all about. We know it’s a tough golf course, and you’ve just got to realize that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Slugger White, the tour’s vice president of rules and competition, disputed the idea that course was on the verge of being unplayable.
”The golf course is not unplayable,” he said.
White conceded a few greens became ”crusty,” particularly at Nos. 2 and 8, and that the staff was thinking there would be more cloud cover. He went out to the greens after the last group came through and said, ”I saw no issues.”
”Players always want firm and fast,” he said. ”It seems like when we give them firm and fast, they don’t want firm and fast. I hear Tiger say it was too soft on Thursday. And then some guy walks off the tee and says, `Have you guys run out of water?’ Where do you go? We’re doing the best we can.”
Watney didn’t entirely agree.
”There’s firm and fast, and then there’s this,” Watney said. ”I mean, this is pretty extreme.”
Also extreme was the turnaround atop the leaderboard.
Watney rolled in another 15-foot putt for birdie on the ninth hole, and when Garcia made bogey on the 10th, Watney had a three-shot lead. That didn’t last long. With his first poor swing of the day, Watney went from the middle of the 11th fairway to the right bunker and made bogey, while Garcia holed a 20-foot birdie putt. Watney followed with a tee shot well to the left to set up another bogey, and the lead was gone. And on the par-5 13th, Garcia made birdie to take the lead.
He never gave it back.
Watney took three putts twice over the last four holes, one from long range and down the hill on the 15th, though he accounted for that with a 40-foot birdie from the fringe on the 17th. That’s what made this day so scary. Any putt that missed was likely to roll well beyond the cup, making players more cautious than usual.
”This will tell you how fast it was,” Garcia said. ”Usually when you are putting on fast greens, you have an idea where the ball is going to stop. And today, you didn’t. You thought the ball was going to stop 2 feet behind the hole, and it went 6. It was pretty much as simple as that.
”Was it unfair? I wouldn’t say it was unfair,” he said. ”It was borderly. It was very close. It felt like the greens were very close to Shinnecock Hills at the U.S. Open.”
Ernie Els might have summed up the day better than anyone. He finished his 72, sat down for lunch and said, ”The boys out there are going to have some fun.”