CARMEL, Ind. – The best in golf returned to Indiana for the first time in more than 20 years, and based on the All-Star performance that broke out Saturday in the BMW Championship, this show might leave these golf-hungry fans even more mesmerized.
The last big event at Crooked Stick was the 1991 PGA Championship featuring an unknown rookie named John Daly who turned it into a one-man show of power golf.
There are no mystery guests this time.
Not with Phil Mickelson making 10 birdies, including a 6-iron on the par-3 17th that he described as a "salty little cut, back into the wind." He had a 64 and wound up tied for the lead with Vijay Singh, who has taken only 74 putts through three rounds, but had a three-putt on the 18th hole that gave him a 69 and cost him the outright lead.
Mickelson and Singh, both in the World Golf Hall of Fame, were at 16-under 200.
Right behind them were two-time major Rory McIlroy and former world No. 1 Lee Westwood, followed by the likes of Adam Scott and Dustin Johnson. And only three shots behind was Tiger Woods, who keeps getting the most out of a scrappy game and is very much in the mix going into Sunday.
"The cream has risen to the top, hasn't it?" Westwood said.
This follows the Deutsche Bank Championship in which McIlroy held off Louis Oosthuizen, Woods, Mickelson and Johnson. The opening week at The Barclays featured Nick Watney beating Ryder Cup pick Brandt Snedeker, Johnson and Sergio Garcia.
And now this — perhaps the strongest leaderboard in golf all year going into the final round.
The 16 players separated by five shots have won 29 majors and 21 World Golf Championships, and four of them have been No. 1 in the world over the last decade.
"The crowd is pretty rowdy, and it's an incredible leaderboard," Scott said. "It's going to be fun. I'm glad I put myself in that position."
Singh was the dominant figure throughout the day. The 49-year-old Fijian hasn't won on the PGA Tour in four years, and he was desperate to show that he could put four good rounds together and end that drought. He made enough birdies to offset a few silly mistakes — mostly short putts that he missed — and he held it together until the end. Singh was in trouble on the par-5 15th until he chipped in for birdie from 50 feet.
He followed that by missing a 4-foot par putt, only to answer with an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th. He was poised to take the outright lead until his approach to the 18th spun down a ridge, and he gunned the 45-foot putt some 5 feet by the cup and missed it coming back.
"I've one more to do," Singh said. "I've got to play a little better than what I did today. I've got to make less mistakes than I did today. I think I can do that."
Mickelson had his best score since he closed with a 64 to win at Pebble Beach in a final-round pairing with Woods. He has gone quiet since the Masters, however, but a change to a claw-style putting grip has coincided with improved play. Lefty felt his game turning around last week on the TPC Boston, where he put together four straight rounds in the 60s, and Saturday only affirmed it.
He finished the front nine with four straight birdies, caught Singh with a 10-foot birdie on the 13th, and then overcame a bogey on the 14th with three birdies in his last four holes. The most impressive was on the 17th, where he hit that soft cut with a 6-iron to a tight pin, gave it a little body English and saw it settle 6 feet away.
"It's taken me a little while to piece it back together, but I could tell last week that my game was back and I was ready to play at the highest level again," Mickelson said. "I came out Thursday and forced it a little too much the front nine. But after that, I've been able to settle down and play some good golf. I'm looking forward to tomorrow's shootout. It should be fun."
The shootout was made possible by drenching rain this week, allowing the players to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway. Three more inches of rain fell overnight, delaying the third round by an hour to remove water from the bunkers and get the course ready.
Then, the best in the world tore it up.
Woods began flexing his left leg during the front nine after an awkward stance on the fourth hole, his feet planted in the grass with his golf ball well below in the sand. He winced occasionally and was tumbling down the leaderboard until he chipped in from 25 feet on the ninth hole.
Thus began four birdies in a five-hole stretch that kept him in the game. He had a 71, losing two shots on the lead, though it could have been worse.
"I'm within reach," Woods said. "I have to probably shoot 63 or 64 tomorrow to have a chance."
But at least he has one, along with a dozen others.
McIlroy didn't play particularly well, either, especially on the easy par-5 ninth when he pitched over the green, chipped to 6 feet and missed to make a bogey. He played the front nine in even par and fell three shots out of the lead until he rallied on the back nine.
"I'm delighted just to be one back going into tomorrow because the display of golf I put on out there from tee to green was not very good," McIlroy said. "I hung in there and made some putts on the back nine and was able to get myself back in the tournament."
If the opening two playoff events were any indication, the only predictable about Sunday might be a forecast of pleasant conditions.
The winners have come from two and three shots behind at Bethpage and Boston, including McIlroy rallying from a three-shot deficit last week. That should help ease the sting of a sloppy day that he turned into a decent score. At stake for Boy Wonder in the final round is a chance to win for the fourth time this year, and become the first player to win back-to-back on the PGA Tour since Woods in 2009.
Then again, it seems everyone has something at stake tomorrow, and everyone has a chance.
"It's the playoffs," Johnson said. "Guys come to play golf. In the big tournaments, it seems like all year the top guys are up there every time."