They call it Moving Day for a reason.
Saturday at the majors always has the potential to be a thrill ride as players go through the gears to manoeuvre their name up the leaderboard in preparation for the fourth and final day but the third round at the 147th Open Championship comfortably takes the prize as the most exciting in recent memory.
It has been one of those tournaments, on a classic links course at Carnoustie that still has managed to bare its teeth in the most benign conditions you are going to find at the British seaside. And the upshot is that we will go into Sunday’s final round still far from certain who will emerge as the R&A’s Champion Golfer of the Year for 2018.
It bodes well for more excitement on what is expected to be another hot day but with the stronger breezes that rolled in off the North Sea late in the third round and with occasional showers on Scotland’s east coast.
A congested leaderboard featuring 19 golfers within five shots of the 54-hole overnight lead at nine over par shared by defending champion Jordan Spieth, fellow 24-year-old Xander Schauffele and a third American, Kevin Kisner, tells only a fraction of the story. For it is the names still in with a chance of lifting the Claret Jug on Sunday evening that whets the appetite.
There are storylines aplenty after yet another compelling day’s golf at the game’s oldest and original championship, not least from Spieth, whose third-round, six-under 65 gives him the overnight lead heading into the final round at The Open for the second year in a row and surely favourite to become the first back-to-back champion in this tournament since Padraig Harrington in 2008.
That of course was the year a certain Tiger Woods won his 14th and most recent major championship. The former world number one, a decade later and with four back surgeries in between, is finally in position to challenge for a 15th following a 66 on Saturday that got his massive galleries rolling back the years as the Tiger Roar resonated around Carnoustie.
Woods’ lowest round at a major since the second round of the 2011 Masters, when both Spieth and Schauffele were graduating from high school, leaves the 42-year-old just three shots off the lead at six under par having started the day on level par, six behind 2015 Open champion Zach Johnson and yet another American, Kevin Kisner.
After a tightly controlled first two rounds, when he favoured accuracy off the tee, leading the field in fairways hit at over 73 per cent, Woods cast off the shackles on Saturday and to the delight of fans across the world, briefly tied the lead at six under following a birdie on the 14th.
The clock read 16:13 at the moment Woods returned to the top of a major championship leaderboard. And for a glorious 20 minutes or so, Woods was also the clubhouse leader as he left the 18th green arena having saved par to post a five-under round, the first time he had posted a 66 at an Open since Carnoustie, exactly 10 years ago on July 21, 2007.
Back then he was defending champion having tamed Hoylake 12 months previously in sun-baked conditions remarkably similar to those that have greeted the field this week.
That 2006 win was his third Open title and his most recent but it is fair to say Woods is not the intimidating presence he was back then. Not that he was short of confidence after his round as he continued his comeback from a lengthy absence due to hose back issues with his most accomplished tournament performance to date.
“We’ll find out what the lead is by day’s end,” Woods said after his 66 with the leaders still playing their third rounds. “At least I know that I will be there with a chance. They won’t be too far out of reach. If they get to double digits, I’m still only five back. That’s certainly do-able with hopefully the weather that comes in tomorrow. If it doesn’t come in and we get conditions like this, then we know we’re going to have to shoot between six, seven, eight-under par (on Sunday) to have a chance.”
Woods has impressed in patches this season and has the best record on the PGA Tour this season for scoring on Saturdays. The problem has been that he has rarely been in contention on Sunday afternoons.
Will being in contention going into the last day of a major be the impetus to close the deal and win a first major since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines?
There are plenty who will be hoping Woods doesn’t get the chance to find out.
Kevin Chappell makes it an American top four, two shots behind the leading trio after a 67 while a further shot in arrears, just three back, is Italy’s straight-hitting and in-form Francesco Molinari, who matched Spieth’s bogey-free 65 to reach six under par for the week.
Tied for sixth on five under alongside Woods is a sextet of fellow big guns that underline the strength in depth at the top of this leaderboard with a trio of fellow major champions in Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson and Zach Johnson as well as European number one Tommy Fleetwood, last year’s runner-up Matt Kuchar and this month’s French Open champion and world number 11 Alex Noren.
Strap yourselves in, it promises to be a final round for the ages.
Leading contenders to lift the Claret Jug:
Jordan Spieth @ 2/1
It’s easy to take Spieth’s talents for granted and he is justifiably the favourite to repeat his victory of 12 months ago at Birkdale but at the age of 24, the Texan could be the first under-25 to win back-to-back Opens since Young Tom Morris in 1869. Yet another unflappable round on Saturday that began with an eagle at the par-four first when he drove the green, then nailed the putt from inside 15 feet. Majestic.
Xander Schauffele @ 5/1
PGA Tour rookie of the year for 2017 who backed up a second-round 66 with a 67 for his third round and in the process outscored playing partner Rory McIlroy by three shots. Has risen to 24th in the world rankings thanks to a tie for second at The Players in May and a tie for sixth last month at Shinnecock Hills in the US Open. This could be his moment.
Kevin Kisner @ 6/1
The least likely of the three leaders to close the deal after a steady as she goes 68 to retain at least a share of the lead for the third straight day. You cannot dismiss a guy who needed just 22 putts in his opening round of 66 but Kisner shared the 18- and 36-hole lead at the 2017 PGA Championship last August and held the solo 54-hole lead, only to finish T7.
Tiger Woods @ 18/1
The Tiger has a major victory in his sights for the first time in a decade and who knows what that will do for his mindset as he tees it up at Carnoustie on a Sunday. He said before the tournament that The Open represents his best chance of adding to his major haul and Sunday could be the day we find out why following a sparkling third-round 66 moved him to five under.
Rory McIlroy @ 16/1
What an enigma the four-time major continues to be as a day of brilliant ball-striking was initially undone by more suspect putting and an errant short game and then unravelled when even irons off the tee went astray. Irritated by photographers, particularly at the 16th on the way to bogeying two of the last three holes and yet still carded a 70 to stay within four of the lead. Anything is possible on Sunday.
Justin Rose @ 40/1
Will have to come from five shots down on the leaders but after the low round on day three, an early seven-under-par 64 that was his best round at an Open, the Englishman is clearly in peak form after scraping into the weekend with a birdie at the last on Friday.
Webb Simpson @ 50/1
Like Rose a former US Open champion still searching for major win number two, Simpson has been edging closer this season with a top-20 finish at the Masters and a T10 at the US Open, winning The Players in between. A consistently straight hitter whose third-round 67 was bogey-free and moved him to five under, four off the lead.