HONOLULU – Brendan Steele knows he can play well at the Sony Open whether it's windy or calm, in sunshine or rain. Now he gets another chance to see if he can win.
One year after Steele lost a late lead at Waialae and lost in a playoff, he delivered the lowest score of his career Saturday in ideal conditions with a 9-under 61 that gave him a two-shot lead going into the final round.
“You hope that you come back and you play well and erase whatever negative memories there are,” Steele said. “But all the memories are pretty positive. Playing great here last year was good, and I’m excited for the challenge tomorrow. I know it’s going to be really tough. Guys are coming after me. But I’ll just do my best and hopefully it will be enough.”
If Saturday was any indication, it will be plenty tough.
Joaquin Niemann, a runner-up last week at Kapalua, was outside the top 10 when he birdied the par-3 17th and then roasted a 7-wood that tumbled onto the green to 10 feet for eagle and a 63. Just like that, he was two shots behind.
Kevin Na started the day five shots out of the lead and matched his career-low with a 61 to join Niemann at two back.
Overnight rain at Waialae Country Club, coupled with the tropical wind not even strong enough to make palm trees sway, left the course as vulnerable as it has ever been.
There were 10 scores of 64 or better Saturday. The average score was 66.7, a record for the Sony Open.
Niemann was 4 under for his round and far from satisfied.
“I thought I could put myself in a better position, and then finishing that way and making eagle on 18 made me really happy and gave me a bit of motivation for tomorrow,” said Niemann, the 22-year-old from Chile.
Na had it going so well he thought about a 59 when he stood over a 10-foot birdie putt on the 17th, knowing that would leave him an eagle away from golf's magic number. He had to settle for a 61, and know he might need another score like it.
“The golf course is so gettable that somebody can go shoot 8 or 9 under,” Na said. “Yeah, I am in a good position but it’s what you shoot Sunday. I’m still going to need a low one tomorrow.”
Steele was at 18-under 192.
Stewart Cink birdied his final hole for a 65 and was three shots behind, along with Charley Hoffman (64), Peter Malnati (64), Chris Kirk (65) and Russell Henley (65).
Starting times have been moved up by two hours Sunday with hopes of finishing ahead of heavy rain in the forecast.
Steele had a two-shot lead with two holes to play a year ago when he missed a 6-foot par putt on the 17th hole, hit a wild hook on his approach to the easy par-5 18th and had to settle for par, and then missed the 10th green with an 80-yard shot in the playoff against Cameron Smith. It was a final hour when everything went wrong.
When he arrived in Hawaii to start the week, he played the back nine at Waialae for a practice round and was reminded of what he let slip away.
“I was remembering some shots, some good and some bad, kind of kicking myself a little bit,” he said.
Steele said he typically plays well coming off a break — five weeks, in this case — and the fact he has the 54-hole lead for the second straight year only tells him he can play this course in any weather. The ferocious wind last year finally gave way to rain. This year, there has been plenty of sunshine and only moderate wind.
Keith Mitchell, who had a 62 on Friday, took the lead at one point in the third round and was 8 under through 15 holes on his round when his tee shot landed near a cement wall of a house and cost him a penalty drop. A mediocre finish gave Mitchell a 63, which felt even higher being in the same group as Na.
Nick Taylor, who took a two-shot lead into the third round, was keeping pace until a pair of bogeys on the back nine. He shot a 68 and was still only four shots back.
Such is the nature of this tournament in this kind of weather. It was wide open on Saturday, and it's not likely to be any different in the final round.