By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – Xander Schauffele offset a late bogey with a closing birdie to sit alone atop a tightly bunched, star-studded leaderboard after the third round of the Charles Schwab Challenge in Forth Worth, Texas on Saturday.
Schauffele, who began the day two shots back of overnight leader Harold Varner III, mixed six birdies with two bogeys to card a four-under-par 66 that left him at 13-under par for the week at a spectator-free Colonial Country Club.
After a two-putt bogey at the par-three 16th where his tee shot settled in the right rough, Schauffele quietly capped his round with an 11-foot birdie putt and later said the absence of fans did not bother him.
“I don’t have like a huge effect on the crowd I’d say, so not having fans isn’t the craziest thing,” said Schauffele. “It just does feel like I’m playing at home with some of my buddies. It’s quiet.
“You make three birdies in a row, you can kind of give yourself a pat on the back. That’s kind of it.”
Sitting one shot back in the first PGA Tour event following a three-month COVID-19 break was a pack of five golfers that included world number four Justin Thomas (66), three-times major winner Jordan Spieth (68) and reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland (66).
Schauffele will face quite a test in his search for a fifth PGA Tour victory as 13 players are within three shots of the lead, including world number one Rory McIlroy (69), former Masters champion Patrick Reed (63) and Varner (70).
Reed wielded a hot putter and began his day with three consecutive birdies, added three more on the trot starting at the ninth and closed with another for the day’s low round.
“I did a lot of things solid the first two days, but I just made too many careless mistakes, so I was trying to clean that up today, and I felt like I did a good job on that and just gave myself a chance with my putter,” said Reed.
McIlroy, who came into the week as the favourite to win after posting six top-10 finishes in six starts this season before tournament play was halted in March, said playing without spectators was starting to feel odd.
“The first couple days it was fine, but definitely today it’s feeling strange,” said McIlroy. “I’m sure tomorrow will feel pretty strange, especially with so many guys in and around the lead.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Pritha Sarkar)