GREENSBORO, N.C. — Arjun Atwal had to play his way into the Wyndham Championship. He’s spent most of the week outplaying everyone else.
Atwal built a three-stroke lead Saturday through three rounds of the PGA Tour’s final pre-playoff event. He shot a 5-under 65 to reach 17-under 193, and he has either led or shared the lead after each of the first three days.
Not bad for someone who lost his tour card and had to win a qualifying tournament just to earn a spot at Sedgefield Country Club.
“I’m not your typical Monday qualifier,” Atwal said.
Scott McCarron closed his 63 with four consecutive birdies and was at 14 under along with Scott Piercy (64) and Lucas Glover (67). Will MacKenzie (65), Garrett Willis (65), David Toms (65), Justin Leonard (66), John Rollins (68) and second-round co-leader Brandt Snedeker (69) were at 13 under.
Kevin Na matched the tournament record with a 61 in the morning to reach 12 under.
But without question, the story at Sedgefield has been Atwal.
The 37-year-old player from India may be winless on the big tour, but he has won on the European, Asian and Nationwide tours. Now he’s one good round away from becoming the first Monday qualifier to win the ensuing tournament since Fred Wadsworth at the 1986 Southern Open.
“I’ve never won on the PGA Tour, but I’ve won on almost every other tour I’ve played on,” Atwal said. “And I don’t see why it’s going to be different trying to win a tournament here. If I’m hitting it well, and I’m playing well (Sunday), I don’t see why I can’t win.”
Atwal has said his main goal this week was to move closer to securing his tour card for 2011. He lost the card last month because he was too low on the money list when his minor medical exemption ran out. That came after he returned too soon following weightlifting injuries to both shoulders.
“I couldn’t hit it out of my shadow when I came back,” Atwal said. “I just wanted to play, and I thought I’d be OK. … (Rushing back) was stupid, now that I look at it.”
He’s ineligible for the playoffs, but kept himself in prime position. He had a two-stroke lead after one round and joined Snedeker as co-leaders after Day 2.
Atwal had three pairs of consecutive birdies during the third round, and gave himself some separation with a near-eagle on No. 15, rolling a putt around the edge of the cup before tapping in for birdie to move to 17 under.
Meanwhile, his playing partner — Snedeker, the 2007 Wyndham winner — ran into trouble on that par 5, which has played as one of the easiest this week. He splashed his second shot into the water and finished with just his second bogey of the week.
“It swayed right into the water,” Snedeker said. “Unfortunately, that stuff happens in the course of a 72-hole tournament.”
Andres Romero, who at No. 123 was squarely on the bubble, took another step toward playing himself into the field at The Barclays next week, shooting a 65 to move to 12 under.
Also five strokes back was Richard S. Johnson, who still has some work to do to claim an unlikely spot in the postseason; he arrived at No. 149 and needs to finish fourth to crack the top 125.
McCarron made a late charge up the leaderboard with birdies on Nos. 15-18, closing his round by making a 20-foot putt that moved him to 14 under. Piercy had a similar bonanza with four straight birdies on Nos. 5-8, then later birdied three of four holes to join him.
“For me, this is a playoff,” said McCarron, No. 142 on the points list. “I don’t play well, then I’m going home.”
For the second time in three days, the Wyndham record round of 61 was reached. This time, it was Na’s turn.
Going off in the morning’s first pairing after barely making the cut, he took full advantage of the fresh greens with seven birdies through 17 holes and an eagle on No. 5. When he got to the 18th, he took aim at one more birdie.
“Honestly, you know, I wanted the course record,” Na said. “I wasn’t going to leave it short.”
After landing his second shot near the back right corner of the green, his 40-footer wouldn’t fall and he two-putted for par, settling for sharing the mark with Carl Pettersson (2008) and Atwal, who shot a first-round 61.