One could have predicted that Luke Donald would be in this position heading into the final round of the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing.
Considering he has two runner-up finishes and two thirds in the past five years at Harbour Town Golf Links, he was among the best bets to be leading the tournament after 54 holes.
Now it’s time for Donald to improve upon those finishes. He shot a 5-under-par 66 in the third round Saturday afternoon and takes a two-shot lead over John Huh and three-shot lead over four other players into Sunday’s final round.
“Obviously I’ve had my chance here,” Donald said. “It’s a place that I think suits my style of play, and if I can go out as relaxed and confident as I was today … if I can control the trajectory as well as I did today, then hopefully I’ll be sitting here as the winner.”
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Donald is at 8-under 205, Huh is at 207 and Charl Schwartzel, Jim Furyk, Ben Martin and Nicholas Thompson are all at 208. Matt Kuchar and Brian Harman are among five players four shots back at 209.
Donald has played 21 of his last 22 rounds under par at Harbour Town, a 7,101-yard par-71 layout that requires placement through its huge oaks and onto its small greens.
“It’s not a course you can overpower,” said Donald, who relies more on precision and a short game than length. “You just sort of position yourself around this course and manage your game and try to hit greens. It’s a good course for me, that’s why I love coming here.”
It wasn’t all smooth going for Donald on Saturday afternoon. He eagled the second hole to get to 5 under and birdied the par-5 fifth, but bogeys on the third, sixth and seventh holes dropped him back to 3 under and four shots off the lead at the time.
“I felt pretty good about my game and how I was swinging and how I was feeling,” said Donald, who was among the half of the field that didn’t have to return Saturday morning to complete their second rounds after play was suspended because of storms Friday. “When you feel that way bogeys don’t irritate you so much. I just felt very calm and felt like I was swinging well and that there would be a lot more chances.”
He made five birdies in his final 11 holes, rolling in putts of 15 and 16 feet on the eighth and 14th holes, hitting 6-irons to 8 and 5 feet on the 10th and 11th holes, and hitting a 7-iron to 15 feet on the par-3 17th hole.
The last of Donald’s five PGA Tour victories came at the 2012 Valspar Championship on Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course near Tampa.
“I think as players you always get a little anxious if it’s been a little bit of time between wins, especially coming from me,” Donald said. “I was former world No. 1 and was there for a long time, and obviously slipped down the rankings.”
About eight months ago, Donald changed swing coaches after 16 years from Pat Goss to Texan Chuck Cook, who works with Jason Dufner, in the hopes of improving his long game in order to improve his finishes in majors. In the past two months, Donald has four top-25s and two top-10s in five starts. “It’s been a little bit of a transition to me when I switched to Chuck,” Donald said.
It was a crowded leaderboard for much of the day Saturday, but as Donald was rising late in the afternoon, players close to the lead were falling off.
Huh shared the lead with Donald at 7 under through his 17th hole, but he bogeyed the 18th after Donald birdied the 17th to fall two shots back. “The 18th hole was probably one of the toughest holes I think I’ve played this year,” Huh said. “… But that’s how it is. I’ve got a little more ground to make up tomorrow.”
Thompson had a share of the lead at 7 under through 15 holes before making a bogey on 16 and hitting his second shot into thick weeds and cord grass near Calibogue Sound and the marsh along the left side of the 18th green.
He chopped his ball out short of the green and chipped to the back fringe, from where he rolled in a 16-foot putt to save a bogey and drop to 5 under.
Harman, who grew up a half hour from Harbour Town in Savannah, Ga., was just a shot off the lead at 6 under through 16 holes and bogey-free at 4 under for the round before hitting a shot into the hazard short of the par-3 17th green. He found the ball in the hazard before walking back to the tee and hitting a second tee shot en route to a double bogey that has him tied for seventh and four off the lead at 4-under 209.
“Just one hiccup on 17, but other than that I’m pretty happy,” Harman said. “I was proud of the way I handled it on 17. I could have gotten real mad and made a mess of 18. But this course is testing you all day. There are so many different shots you’ve got to hit. You’ve got to stay patient.”
The late struggles of the contenders gave Donald more of a cushion entering the final round.
“[Donald] has a lot of experience,” Furyk said. “He’s the former No. 1 player in the world. He’s had a lot of success here and likes it here, and I can see why. It really suits his game. I think it’s going to be a very windy, tough day tomorrow, and I think that also suits him. He’ll be a tough guy to catch.”
Furyk has a pretty good track record at Harbour Town himself. In 15 previous appearances he won in 2010 and has two second-place finishes and a fourth.
No one else within three shots of the lead has much Heritage history. Huh shot 77-72–149 in 2012 to miss the cut in his only previous Heritage appearance. A tie for 37th is Thompson’s best finish in four previous Heritage starts, Martin tied for 56th in his only visit in 2011, and Schwartzel is making his first Heritage start.
“I’m where I want to be,” Donald said. “I’m excited about going out tomorrow and playing a solid round like I did today. I’m obviously in prime position. I’m favored to win, and this is a course, again, I feel very comfortable on.”