A year ago, Brendan Steele was finishing in a tie for 16th and collecting $9,000 at a Nationwide Tour event in Missouri. Sunday, the 28-year-old will be playing in the final group as the co-leader of the PGA Championship, the final golf major of the season.
Steele, a 28-year-old Californian, birdied five of the first 10 holes, shaking off a double bogey at the seventh - the second time this week he's done that - for a third round 66 to grab a share of the lead through three rounds in Atlanta.
"It's a great week for me just to be in the field," said Steele, who is believed to be the first rookie since John Daly in the 1991 championship to play in the final group of a major. "To have a chance to actually win in my first major is really something special."
Jason Dufner, who had not made a cut since late May, showed his moxie after a couple of three-putt bogeys knocked him out of the lead. He bounced back with a birdie at the 15th, the longest par-3 on the course, and made it two in a row by rolling in a 12-footer at the next hole to close with a 68 and a share of the lead at 7-under par.
"Maybe I'm a little bit surprised to be in the final group at a major," Dufner said. "But I'm not surprised to be playing well on this type of golf course."
Keegan Bradley, another guy playing in his first major, bounced back from a double bogey at the first hole for a 69 that left him just one stroke back heading to the final round.
"Coming up to the final hole with the sun going down, that was kind of cool," said Bradley, the nephew of LPGA legend Pat Bradley.
The last player to win a major in his first try was Ben Curtis in the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George's. The last American to make a major his first PGA Tour win was Shaun Micheel at the PGA Championship in 2003 at Oak Hill.
There were some familiar names lurking near the top. Forty-seven-year-old Scott Verplank had two late birdies for a 69 and headed to the clubhouse at 205, his creaky body holding up in the heat. Steve Stricker, the top-ranked American in the world at age 44, was another stroke back after a 69 of his own.
Collectively, they've put the U.S. in position to capture its first major title since Phil Mickelson won the 2010 Masters. Since then, it's an 0-for-6 drought, the longest of the modern Grand Slam era for Americans.
Jim Furyk was in the mix until he put two balls in the water at the 18th and took double bogey. The 73 dropped him to 209, a daunting six strokes off the lead. He was joined by the world's top-ranked players, No. 1 Luke Donald (68) and No. 2 Lee Westwood (70).
Charl Schwartzel put himself in position to win his second major of the season after firing a bogey-free round of 68.
While Schwartzel birdied the final four holes at Augusta National to win the Masters earlier this year, the South African hasn't had the same kind of luck with the four finishing holes at Atlanta Athletic Club. Through the first two rounds, he had played them in 5-over par. On Saturday, he managed a birdie and three pars to leave him in contention heading into Sunday's final round.
"Definitely some of the toughest I’ve ever played," Schwartzel said. "I think any time you’re going to do that [1-under]on this golf course, you know you’re going to end up fairly well."
“These last four holes are going to decide this golf tournament."
Schwartzel's 2-under total leaves him tied with David Toms, Robert Karlsson and Adam Scott.
Toms, the 2001 PGA Champion, is in the mix again after putting up one of the best rounds of the week, sparked by an eagle at the par-5 12th hole. He followed with birdies at 13 and 14, then made another at the tough closing hole for a 65.
"Really the key to my round being a great round was the bunker shot I hit on 14," said Toms. "Holing that, could have made bogey, double, pretty easily; and to hole a bunker shot and made birdie, that was a bonus."
"Obviously it will take a great round tomorrow," Toms added. "But you never know. I just wanted to have a good round to give myself a chance."
Karlsson had bogey's at the beginning and end of his round but in between put up five birdies to put himself in contention with a 67.
Scott, the winner last week at Firestone, posted an even par round of 70.
For 15 holes, Luke Donald looked poised to put himself near the top of the leaderboard. But a bogey on No. 16 and a water-logged double bogey on No. 18 left the world number one at 1-under par with one round to go.
“Obviously the finish leaves a bitter taste in my mouth,” Donald said. “I had something really good going there, and kind of threw it away.”
Someone who knows exactly how Donald feels is Phil Mickelson, who for the third straight day scored bogey or worse on No. 18 for a second straight round of 70. Despite four birdies on the day - his best showing of the week - Lefty failed to make up any ground and stands at even par heading into the final round.
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, who came into the week as the favourite, struggled to a 74 with his ailing wrist and won't be a factor on Sunday.
Mike Small, the Illinois golf coach who is the lone club professional to make the cut, shot an even-par 70 on Saturday. The score equalled his second lowest total in 19 career PGA rounds.
Files from the Associated Press were used in this reportReport Typo/Error