Late birdies let Justin Thomas keep slim lead at Sherwood

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Justin Thomas hits from bunker to the second green during the third round of the Zozo Championship golf tournament Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Justin Thomas wasn't playing poorly. It only felt that way Saturday at the Zozo Championship at Sherwood, where being a few shots under par means losing ground. He was 3 under and already had lost the lead he had at the start.

The final hour changed everything — his score, his position, even his outlook.

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Thomas got one good break, made two good birdie putts and wound up with a 5-under 67 that gave him a one-shot lead over Jon Rahm going into the final round.

“Didn't have my best stuff by any means, but to shoot a round like that is huge on a course like this," Thomas said. “Usually I'm grinding to shoot a 1-, 2-, 3-under. Here at Sherwood, the scores are very low and you need to be able to — crazy as it is — shoot 5 under to keep pace.”

He got there with an 8-foot par putt on the 15th, a 10-foot birdie putt on the 16th after his tee shot nearly went into a creek and he regained the lead with a 30-foot birdie putt up the slope on the par-3 17th.

“Great to give myself a little bit of momentum and cap off what I felt like was a pretty average day.”

It was anything but average for Rahm. He was 5 under through five holes and saved par at the end for a 63 that left him one shot behind. Lanto Griffin, who had the lead until bogeys on two of his last four holes, was another shot behind.

“Tee to green was pretty much the same. Maybe just a little bit better, but I made the putts, which always helps, right?” Rahm said. “Making the putt on 1 and 2 ... freed me up a little bit. Got a really, really good round going early on.”

Thomas was at 19-under 197.

For all the low scores, it was another grind for Tiger Woods, the Zozo Championship winner last year in Japan, who could only manage a 71.

“The golf course was gettable and I just didn’t do it,” Woods said.

Phil Mickelson opened with seven birdies in eight holes, only to play the rest of the way in 2 over for a 67. A bogey from the fairway on his final hole led to another example of how strange this year has been because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mickelson and Woods, the two biggest draws in golf, will be playing in the same group Sunday. And there won't be any fans on the golf course to watch them,

It will be the ninth time Woods and Mickelson play together in the final round on the PGA Tour, and the first time they have no bearing on the outcome. They were 16 shots out of the lead. The first time they played together on a Sunday was at the 1997 PGA Championship when they were eight shots behind and each shot 75,

The other end of scoring is plenty compelling.

Thomas, the No. 3 player in the world, is going for his third victory this year. Rahm can return to No. 1 in the world. Griffin is equally intriguing. He won his first PGA Tour title last year in Houston and showed for so much of Saturday that he doesn't get caught up in much. Plus, his putting stroke has been pure all week.

Griffin opened with four straight birdies to take the lead, and he stayed there until the end of the round. He went to 19 under with a 15-foot birdie on the 14th hole — two clear of Thomas at that point — when his tee shot took on the flag on the right side of the green at the 15th and drifted too far right and into the hazard.

Instead of going to the drop zone, he went to a different set of tees that allowed for a full swing and better control, dropped that wedge into 20 feet and made the putt to escape with bogey.

Thomas was playing well enough, even if he had little to show for it after opening with two birdies. In trouble off the tee on the par-5 13th, he chose to drop on the cement cart path and hit a hard draw — without damaging his club — back into the fairway. But then he didn't take advantage by hitting a mediocre wedge to the fringe to set up par.

He hit driver on the par-5 16th, a low cut for shape that caught a sycamore tree and dropped into the rough instead of the hazard. Thomas didn't realize that until later.

“I thought it was going to kind of skirt around that tree and go to the end of fairway, and then I heard it hit the branches,” he said. “Yeah, I guess we got lucky there.”

Patrick Cantlay didn't get much out of his round either, but he kept bogeys off his card for the third straight day. He was three shots behind, along with Sebastian Munoz and Ryan Palmer, who each had 66.

Webb Simpson (67) and Bubba Watson (68) were among those four shots behind.

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