SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Whistling Straits played so easy in the third round of the PGA Championship that a guy hit a shot into the hospitality tents, and was still on the leader board. The golf course was soft and plump as a bed, and becalmed Lake Michigan lay alongside it like a slack green sheet. It was a lovely place for a nap, or a boat ride, but it wasn’t so great for separating out players, and it left Jason Day and Jordan Spieth breathing down each other’s necks.
If the course played easy, it also produced high-quality drama and some superb golf. Day struck a series of high parachuting shots that drifted down to the greens to tap-in distance, finishing with a 66 that gave him a two-stroke lead. As Day scorched the precarious cliff-side layout with a stretch of four birdies and an eagle that at one point put him at 16-under-par, Spieth glanced at the leader board, incredulously.
“You got to be kidding me,” Spieth said to his caddie. “When is he going to slow down?”
Day finally did, with a double bogey at the 15th. And just then here came the 22-year-old Spieth, who sprung a late charge with puma-like intensity, birdieing six of the final eight holes for a 65. That kept alive Spieth’s hope of becoming only the third man in the modern era to win three majors in a single season, along with Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods.
Despite those flurries of scoring, it was almost impossible for either of them to get any real separation. “One more day left,” Day said. “I’ve got to keep pushing, keep grinding.” The course was such a pushover that the leader board was packed as tightly with names as a phone book. Three strokes back at 12 under was Branden Grace after a 64 tied him in third place with Justin Rose (68). Still another stroke back after shooting 65 was Martin Kaymer, the 2010 PGA champion. And still another stroke back were a pair of journeymen in Tony Finau, a 25-year-old appearing in only his second major, and 31-year-old Matt Jones — the second-round leader who managed to stay in contention despite hitting into a tent on the ninth hole.
Jones’s ball came to rest on an elevated carpeted porch, where he had to cut through crowds of patrons with cocktails and cellphone cameras to find it. Somehow he managed to grin at the situation, then lined up and whacked a tremendous recovery shot on to the collar of the green, pin high, and chased it while all the guys with cocktails slapped him on the back. But another errant tee shot at the par-3 17th resulted in a double bogey, when he found himself halfway down a cliffside hacking out of long grass, and he finished with a 73.
That was evidence of what Whistling Straits could do to you if you wandered too far off line, even in the calm. The Pete Dye design has serpentine fairways that are menacingly narrow, lined by mazes of deep chin-high bunkers, and steep drops to the lake. When the wind is up, it produces a tow toward the rocky beach on the banks of Lake Michigan. The wind is supposed to rise for Sunday’s final round, which promises a fascinating duel between two twentysomethings in Spieth and Day.
They made the final pairing together thanks a late dramatic swing on Saturday evening. About the time Spieth was making his last birdie at the 18th hole with an 8-foot gliding putt, Day was finding his only real trouble of the round. At the par-4 15th, he hit into one of those chin-deep bunkers, and his blast-out attempt from the heavy sand failed. He double bogeyed. But he answered with a birdie at the 17th to give himself the small luxury of an extra stroke over Spieth. “I’ve done all the hard work right now to get into contention, to have this lead,” Day said.
It’s hard to say which of them will be the hungrier player. Spieth is a constant stalking presence who has been hunting history all season and has proven his appetite for greatness. He was tied for the lead in the British Open with two holes to play last month and if not for a late bogey he might be looking at a Grand Slam sweep of all four majors. “I’ll sleep just fine,” he said, “and I’ll go into tomorrow strictly for the history piece of trying to get my name on a different major.”
Day has finished in the top 10 of majors nine times now — without winning. The 27-year-old Australian exudes an almost painful craving to lift a trophy. “I’ve done all the hard work, especially over the last four or five years, to really put myself to the point where I really believe in myself, know that I’m one of the best players in the world and can beat anyone on my day,” Day said.
One of Day’s top-10 finishes came after he was stricken with vertigo during the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, causing him to collapse in the second round. While Day battled to stay upright, Spieth went on to the victory. “I was playing dizzy,” Day said. At the British Open last month, he had another painful experience, finishing just one stroke shy. He says he is finally ready to get rid of the burden of winlessness and close out a final round with a victory.
“I’ve viewed them as very stressful and kind of hard to go out and play the next day,” Day said. “But I’m enjoying myself so much more on the golf course. It’s been fun to be out here in pressure situations. It’s good to be in contention, especially on Sunday. It’s good to have the lead.”