Rickie Fowler hits his tee shot. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
Sung Kang's lead at the Shell Houston Open was cut in half on Saturday, but the journeyman from South Korea will still be the player to beat in the final round, which is likely to come down to a match-play scenario with Rickie Fowler if the weather cooperates.
Kang fought through the blustery winds and his nerves to scramble to a 1-under-par 71 and hold on to a three-stroke lead over Fowler after the third round.
Kang is at 17 under through 54 holes after a round that featured four birdies and three bogeys on the quick but flawless putting surfaces at the Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston, located in this northern suburb of the sprawling Bayou City.
Kang's 199 total tied the tournament course-low 54 holes set by Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa in 2012.
Fowler's 5-under 67 was good enough for solo second at 14 under. Russell Henley (67) is third at 13 under and Luke List (whose 65 was the best round of the day by two shots) is alone on fourth at 12 under.
Rafael Campos (68), Daniel Berger (71) and Kyle Stanley (71) are tied for fifth at 8 under. Aaron Baddeley (73) of Australia and Hudson Swafford (75) are another stroke back in a tie for eighth. Only those eight players are within 10 strokes of Kang's lead.
"I was playing very hard today," Kang said. "The wind was murder. The greens got a lot firmer because we played in the afternoon. The greens got a lot faster. Fortunately, I started with some birdies today and it did help me out a lot."
The final bogey from Kang came with a three-putt on the par-3 16th hole that rolled completely around the hole and back out from the direction it was struck. But Kang's difficulty there had nothing on Fowler's misadventures on the par-4 17th and 18th holes.
Kang started the third round with a six-shot lead over Henley and Swafford and a seven-shot cushion on Fowler. Fowler caught Kang at 17 under with a birdie on the par-3 14th but then got wayward with his drives and imprecise with his putter, dropping three strokes on the final two holes.
Kang knew that something was going on in the group in front of him but didn't know that it was Fowler making the charge.
"I heard a lot of clapping in front of us, but I didn't know who was making birdies," On 15 or 16, I looked at the leaderboard, and Rickie was at like 8 under par for the day. It was real impressive. Playing really hard. Unfortunately, he putted poorly on the last hole."
Fowler bogeyed the par-4 17th after hitting his drive into a bunker and missing a two-foot putt for par. On the daunting closing hole, his drive was way right in the light rough, but he found the green on his approach, 52 feet from the hole. From there, Fowler needed four putts to finish, ending the round with a double bogey.
Fowler did almost everything well on the first 15 holes and is encouraged that he put himself in a position to win.
"You can't really dwell on last two holes," Fowler said. "I mean, we went out and played some good golf today. We just managed our way around very well, hit a lot of our lines and a lot of good shots and made good putts.
"I just got funky on the greens last two holes. But we put ourselves in a position to win. We've done all the work these last three days to be in the position we're in right now and put (the final two holes) behind us with 18 holes of golf left."
Fowler has played Nos. 15-18 in 5 over in the first three rounds, a huge swing when parring those four holes would have him atop the leaderboard.
Kang has never led or shared the lead going into a final round on the PGA Tour.
Kang and Fowler will be in a virtual match-play scenario for the final round, but with Kang leading by three shots when they begin the first hole.
"I like the challenge of coming from behind and then potentially being able to put pressure on the guy," Fowler said. "I have to get off to a nice start -- I have to go out and not make mistakes early. Sung is out front, he's got a little bit of that cushion, and he can, I guess, afford to have a bogey in there, whatnot, because I still have to go out and catch him."
Because 81 players made the cut after the second round, there was a 54-hole cut to the top 70 players and ties. Those that didn't make it to the final round included reigning PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker (79), former U.S. Amateur winner Ricky Barnes (77) and Jason Kokrak (82).
NOTES: Due to expected inclement weather that includes thunderstorms and high winds, the fourth round of the tournament will feature threesomes off holes Nos. 1 and 10 beginning at approximately 7:15 a.m. local time. ... Eleven second-round leaders/co-leaders have gone on to win during the 2016-17 season, most recently D.A. Points last week at the Puerto Rico Open. ... Since 2000, four second-round leaders of the Shell Houston Open have parlayed that position into a win: Paul Casey (2009), Johnson Wagner (2008), Stuart Appleby (2006) and Robert Allenby (2000). ... Alex Cejka of Germany was disqualified after the second round for signing an incorrect scorecard. ... Four players have won the week before the Masters Tournament and then gone on to win in Augusta: Ralph Guldahl (Wyndham Championship) in 1939, Art Wall (Azalea Open) in 1959, Sandy Lyle (Wyndham Championship) in 1988 and Phil Mickelson (BellSouth Classic) in 2006.