PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Michael Thompson felt like he was playing in a U.S. Open whenever he saw his golf ball in the rough or the scores on the leaderboard at the Honda Classic.
No one was going anywhere Saturday at PGA National.
In cool, blustery conditions on a course with water hazards at nearly every turn, the strategy was to keep the head down and keep big numbers off the scorecard. Thompson and PGA Tour rookie Luke Guthrie managed to do that well enough to share the lead going into the final round.
Guthrie was tested his first time in the last group on tour and made a collection of solid pars on his final eight holes for a 1-over 71. Thompson accepted his bogeys and finished with a two-putt birdie on the 18th for a 70.
They were at 8-under 202, and while the conditions were tough, equally daunting were some of the names behind him.
Lee Westwood, who moved his family down the road from PGA National over the Christmas break, rallied over the last five holes by chipping in for birdie, making an 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th and salvaging par after hitting into the water on the par-5 18th. That gave him a 70 and put him only two shots behind.
He was tied with Geoff Ogilvy, who appears to have snapped out of his putting doldrums that cost him dearly on the West Coast. Ogilvy recovered from three bogeys in four holes at the start of his round by making a 7-foot birdie putt at the end for a 70.
By one shot, Ogilvy missed staying in the top 50 at the end of last year for an automatic invitation to the Masters. He has slipped to No. 79, but a win Sunday would take care of that, and runner-up alone at least should get him into the top 50 and earn a spot at Doral next week.
The Australian summed up the day perfectly.
“Even par for the day was never going to go backward,” Ogilvy said. “It was only going to go forward, and I did that.”
Eleven players were separated by four shots going into the final round, a group that included Charles Howell III, Keegan Bradley, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler, who surged into the picture with a birdie-eagle finish for a 69. He was the only player among the last 46 players to tee off who broke par.
None of the top 20 players going into Saturday did better than 70.
“The rough is definitely, exactly like a U.S. Open,” Thompson said. “You just have to take your medicine and make your bogey, just try to eliminate the doubles out here and just try to play smart golf and know that you’re going to make a couple birdies.”
Missing from the mix was Tiger Woods.
Woods had hoped to post a low score to at least get into contention and was headed that way with a 32 on the front nine. But he didn’t make another birdie the rest of the way, and took a double bogey on the par-3 17th when his shot plugged into the bank short of the green and he never found the ball. He wound up with a 70, not a bad score under the conditions, but not good enough to achieve what he wanted. He was eight shots behind.
Woods was nine shots out of the lead a year ago after 54 holes, closed with a 62 and was runner-up by two shots to Rory McIlroy.
Instead of the No. 1 player at the top of the leaderboard, there is a pair of players who have never won on the PGA Tour, two players who realized that a victory Sunday would get them into the Masters. Thompson hasn’t been to Augusta National since 2008 as a U.S. Amateur finalist.
It might help that the expectations will hang on those behind them.
“You definitely see the names,” Guthrie said. “I would like to see them all up there, and hopefully, right behind me. You want to compete, you want to play against the best and lay it all on the line tomorrow on the back nine. Hopefully, they’re all there and we’re battling.”
If the wind is anything like it was Saturday, it could be a matter of hanging on — and not just for them.
Proof of that was the scoring. Y.E. Yang had a 67, the low score of the third round, and moved up 36 spots into a tie for seventh.
Westwood made a pair of sloppy bogeys to end the front nine and was in danger of falling too far behind until a 33 on the back nine got him back in the game. Just as key was getting through the 10th and 11th holes with par.
The par-4 11th, with the second shot over a lake, played so difficult that it yielded only birdie among 75 players — a 35-foot putt by Yang — and played to an average score of 4.8, which was higher than both the par 5s at PGA National.
The 10th played just over 500 yards as a par 4 and into the wind, so tough that Ogilvy had to hit 3-wood for his second shot.
“I like my chances regardless of the conditions,” Westwood said. “I’m playing nicely. Just got a couple of mistakes I made today, but other than that, I’m playing solidly. I have to start making a few putts. I had a lot of chances to make putts that just grazed the hole. I like being out late on a Sunday and having a chance.”
Five of the nine players within four shots of the lead could get to the Masters with a win, and that would be particularly meaningful to Howell, who grew up in Augusta. He was five shots out of the lead, until making a 20-foot birdie on the 15th and coming close to the water on the 18th, stopping short of a bunker for an up-and-down birdie that gave him a 71.
Fowler had a 69 and finished nearly two hours before the leaders. When the round was over, his name was prominently on the leaderboard. He will play in the final round with Howell in the third-to-last group.
“The biggest thing is being within a few shots going into the back nine tomorrow,” Fowler said. “That’s where the tournament really starts.”
DIVOTS: IrishGolfDesk.com reported Saturday that McIlroy will explain that frustration and a sore wisdom tooth was behind his abrupt withdrawal Friday. The website cited a friend close to McIlroy as saying he practiced Saturday at The Bear’s Club with swing coach Michael Bannon. … Billy Horschel was three shots out of the lead with a birdie on the third hole. He made six bogeys and three double bogeys the rest of the way for an 81. … David Lynn of England, a PGA Tour member based on his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship last year, shot 68 while paired with Woods and was six shots behind.