ORLANDO, Fla. — Adam Scott didn’t have to look as far down the leaderboard to find players who suddenly are a real threat to win at Bay Hill.
He described them as players who are "hungry to win," and Scott served them up an appetizer Saturday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Staked to a seven-shot lead at the start of the third round, the Masters champion hit enough loose shots and missed just enough par putts to lose more than half his lead and turn his quest to be No. 1 in the world into a bigger battle that he would have preferred.
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Scott made a 7-foot par putt on the final hole for a 1-under 71, giving him a three-shot lead over Keegan Bradley going into Sunday.
"I think I’ve got to go out and try to win the golf tournament (Sunday)," Scott said. "I’m not trying to win the No. 1 ranking. I’ve got a bunch of guys breathing down my neck who all have had nice rounds today and are feeling pretty good about the way they’re playing going into tomorrow. So I’m going to have to play a pretty sharp round of golf and not open the door at all."
Scott was at 15-under 201.
Bradley birdied his last three holes, taking on the flag at the 18th with a 9-iron from 167 yards that narrowly cleared the rocks framing the lake and settled 4 feet from the flag. That was the final touch on an eight-birdie round of 66 that put him in the final group.
"I just kind of like that underdog role," Bradley said. "I like knowing that I’ve got to go out there and play well. It really gets me excited. And playing in the final group with one of the best players in the world at Arnold Palmer’s tournament is what we all dream to do. Tomorrow is going to be a really fun day."
Any other year at Bay Hill, he might have been referring to Tiger Woods.
Woods, the two-time defending champion at Bay Hill and No. 1 in the world, withdrew before the tournament because of recurring back pain. Scott has a chance to replace him at No. 1 in the world with a victory, though he wouldn’t take over at the top until the week before the Masters.
But there’s too much golf, and now too many players, for Scott to think that far ahead.
Matt Every (66) and Jason Kokrak (67) were four shots behind, both with a chance to win on the PGA Tour for the first time. Chesson Hadley and Francesco Molinari of Italy each had a 69 and were another shot behind. Hadley, who won the Puerto Rico Open two weeks ago, can qualify for the Masters with a high finish. He likely would need to be in sixth place or better to be solidly inside the top 50 in the world.
Scott was never satisfied with the seven-shot lead, and he still felt comfortable with a three-shot advantage going to Sunday.
"When you’ve got the lead, you have to work for it," he said. "I’m still in good shape."
Five holes into the third round, his seven-shot lead already had been trimmed to one. Scott three-putted from 60 feet on the opening hole, an indication of how fast the greens have become at Bay Hill, and he hit a poor chip to 12 feet on the fifth hole to drop another shot. Hadley applied the early pressure with four birdies through the sixth hole to get within one shot.
Scott wasn’t aware of this. He doesn’t sound as though he would have been surprised, anyway.
"When you don’t start birdie-birdie today, then you know the other guys have got nothing to lose and they’re going for it," he said. "They’ve got to close the gap. It doesn’t surprise me at all. You think seven is a lot, but it’s not really, especially over 36 holes. If I was seven back at any other tournament, I would think I could still win."
Scott laid up on the par-5 sixth and hit wedge to 2 feet. And after a few long birdie putts on the 10th and 15th holes restored the cushion, he two-putted from 60 feet for birdie on the par-5 16th to bring his lead back to five shots.
Bradley birdied the 18th. Scott missed a 5-foot par putt on the 17th, and then the 33-year-old Australian nearly had one more wobble. His birdie putt on the 18th slid about 7 feet by the hole. Scott made that coming back for par, which he hopes will be a small measure of momentum he can carry into the final round.
"I missed two par putts shorter than that," he said. "To miss another would have opened the door a little bit too much for my liking."
Bradley made six birdies on the back nine, including the last three holes. He had a good look at eagle on the 16th and missed the 15-foot putt, made a putt just inside 25 feet for birdie on the 17th and then took on the flag on the 18th, even though caddie Steve "Pepsi" Hale was wanting him to play slightly more conservatively.
"I was going right at it," Bradley said of his 9-iron. "He was nervous. I knew the whole way it was going to cover and be perfect. But it worked out."