Jordan Spieth fired a flawless 65 in perfect scoring conditions as the 23-year-old American closed in on a wire-to-wire Open Championship success at Royal Birkdale.
It was a day when South Africa’s Branden Grace grabbed the headlines, taking full advantage of benign conditions to unwittingly make the first 62 in Major history.
But if Spieth were to lift the Claret Jug come Sunday evening, the Texan, who turns 24 on Thursday, would head to next month’s US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow with his own shot at history – the opportunity to become the youngest man to complete the career grand slam.
He admitted that a second 65 at Royal Birkdale was better than he had expected to shoot today, saying in his press conference: “Our goal was to shot four-under today, two each side. I told Michael I wanted to get to 10-under and nothing changed during the round, it played exactly as we thought. It was so much easier to putt without the wind.
Victory would also see Spieth become the youngest winner of The Open since Seve in 1979, with the added bonus that he would rise to second in the world rankings. Dustin Johnson will remain top of those rankings and put himself in the Sunday hunt with a Saturday 64, a score that could, and perhaps should, have been a couple of shots better.
Spieth's first birdie of the day came on the third before he picked up back-to-back gains on the sixth and seventh holes to extend his lead - but Kuchar refused to let him get too far ahead.
Two-time Major champion Spieth has a six shot cushion between himself and 3rd place, and will again be joined in the final group by fellow American Matt Kuchar for the second consecutive round. Kuchar, who at this point can be considered as Spieth’s major threat, is three shots back after a four-under-par 66 and will head into the fourth round with high hopes of finally nailing his first Major title.
Having cut Spieth’s lead to just one-shot through 15 in the midst of a short, unexpected rain storm, Kuchar doubled 16 to fall three shots behind. A courageous birdie followed at the par-5 17th and with Spieth failing to convert his chance of a four as the sun broke through once again, but Kuchar was unable to match birdies with Spieth on the 18th, giving his fellow American a little extra breathing room Sunday afternoon.
“It was a day where you had to be aggressive," Spieth said after his round. "The (approach) shot on three was big for me to get started, I didn’t have to work too hard for it, hitting one good shot to a few inches."
“The birdie (putt) on 15 was key because Kuch tied the lead there and I hit what I thought was a good putt but it turned into not such a good putt. It was probably my scariest putt of the day.
Spieth has a wonderful record of converting five times out of six for victory from a 54-hole lead, but the one where he didn't will always be one that people ask about.
During his press conference, World No.3 was quick to say that while he has learned from his Masters collapse in 2016, he doesn't believe it will play any part in whether he wins or loses tomorrow.
“I’m in a position where everything I’ve gone through can be advantageous, the good, the bad and everything in the middle. I understand that leads can be squandered quickly and I also understand how you keep on building on one."
"It (Augusta 2016) was a humbling experience that I thought at the time could serve me well going forward and if I don’t win tomorrow it has nothing to do with that, it was just someone else’s day and I didn’t play as well as I should have."
"If I win tomorrow it had nothing to do with that either. You’re learning and it all goes into the mental process and as I go into the next 18 to 20 hours it’s about being positive and staying focused in the gameplan. Tomorrow will be emotionally draining and difficult to stay neutral in my head but that’s the most important thing for me to do.”
“I think I will assume that we are tied for the lead and my gameplan will take shape around 12pm tomorrow. I’m going to have to see what’s forecast and I’m able to watch some coverage, see where misses are, see what putts do, it’s a nice advantage to have, but it’s all about greens in regulation. Having putter in my hand for birdie is the most important thing tomorrow.”
The final group will follow Brooks Koepka and surprise Canadian contender Austin Connelly out on Sunday. The big-hitting American maintained his hopes of sealing back-to-back Major titles with bogeys at the first and final holes sandwiching four birdies, but a 68 leaves him six shots adrift of Ryder Cup teammate Spieth and with a lot of work to do on Sunday.
Europe’s main hopes rest with defending champion Henrik Stenson and Ryder Cup teammate Rafa Cabrera Bello as the pair share seventh place at 3-under with Dustin Johnson, Branden Grace and Chan Kim. The Swede fired a five-under-par 65, while last week’s Scottish Open champion fired a three-under 67 to sit in a tie for sixth, six shots back of Spieth.
British hopes lay with Ian Poulter, Ross Fisher and Rory McIlroy (T10, -2) who endured differing days. Fisher was all-smiles after a positive 66, while Poulter slipped down the leaderboard with a 71 and McIlory failed to build on a fast start.
Having seen Grace complete just moments earlier, the Northern Irishman arrived on the 1st tee ready to attack a course that, unlike Friday, was relying on little more than its hole locations for its defence. By the 6th tee, he was three-under for the day, but that was as good as it got.
Two bogeys followed and, despite a bounceback birdie at 9, a damaging double-bogey at 11 and a failure to capitalise on chances on the way home saw him post a -1 (69) round to sit two-under for the tournament and nine shots back of Spieth.
Little wind, blue skies and soft greens saw the game’s star names perform immensely well, with Jason Day and defending champion Henrik Stenson both carding five-under 65s to put themselves out of the plus numbers but probably just slightly out of reach of Spieth.
The much anticipated pairing of Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia provided a few birdies, but although Fowler finished one shot better of Garcia and tied in a tie for 15th at one-under, it is very unlikely he'll be able to catch the leaders.
Perhaps the most surprising stat of the day is that despite the easy scoring conditions there were still 19 players over par on day three, with Danny Willett propping up the leaderboard at eight-over for the tournament thanks to a 73.