It has been a while since Luke Donald has taken a lead into a final round on the PGA Tour.
Two years almost to the day in fact, as Donald held a lead through three rounds of the 2014 RBC Heritage. His last 54-hole lead prior to that came in the 2011 RBC Heritage.
You can see the trend.
Donald has had his opportunities at Harbour Town Golf Links, and he once again is in the driver’s seat in the 48th RBC Heritage following a 2-under 69 Saturday in blustery conditions that gave him a one-stroke lead entering Sunday’s final round.
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Donald is still seeking his Heritage breakthrough Sunday performance, settling for five top-three finishes that include three second places since 2009.
“It’s probably a little dangerous to say a place owes you. But certainly I’ve been knocking on the door many times at this event,” Donald said. “I would love to put that Tartan jacket on tomorrow. I’ve come very close, and again I’ve put myself in a great position and that’s all you can ask. Hopefully the chips will fall my way tomorrow.”
Donald is at 7-under 206, a stroke ahead of Jason Kokrak and Charley Hoffman after Kokrak shot a 68 and Hoffman bogeyed the closing hole to fall out of a tie for the lead with a 71. PGA Tour rookie Patton Kizzire is two back and the formidable trio of Branden Grace, Zach Johnson and Chris Kirk lurk three shots back at 4-under 209.
Not only is Donald looking for his first win since the 2012 Transitions Championship, which moved him to No. 1 in the world for a time, he’s looking for his first top-10 finish since the Travelers Championship last June.
“I haven’t been in this position as much as I would have liked the last couple of years,” the Englishman said. “But I certainly have been in this position many times, and I’ll draw from that, especially around this place. I think if there’s one tournament I’ve been in this position the most, it would be this one, and I kind of know what to expect.”
Donald has been burnt enough times while in or near the lead in the final round at Harbour Town to know he can’t play overly conservative Sunday.
He took a one-shot lead at 11-under into the final round in 2011, shot 70 and lost in a playoff to Brandt Snedeker, who closed with a 64. In 2014, he had a two-stroke 54-hole lead, shot a 69 and finished a stroke behind Matt Kuchar when Kuchar holed a bunker shot for birdie on the 18th hole.
“Usually it’s pretty bunched around this place. There’s always someone that will come out of the pack and shoot a low round,” Donald said. “… It’s possible the wind conditions are going to be a little bit more favorable tomorrow, and usually someone will go low and post a number. You can’t sit back and make pars. I’ve got to go out there and be reasonably aggressive and shoot a good score if I want to win tomorrow.”
Because he wasn’t qualified to play in the Masters last week – the first major he has missed in eight years – Donald didn’t play on tour for the past two weeks and had time to work on his game. That work has combined with his affinity for the Pete Dye layout to produce a week he hasn’t had in some time.
“I think even though my results haven’t been exactly spectacular the last few months, I feel like I’ve been making a lot of progress. I’ve been working hard on my game. Certainly I feel like my golf is trending in the right direction,” Donald said. “And coupled with a sense of familiarity and success that I’ve had in the past at this event, I think both of those together are why I’m playing well this week.”
Gusting winds over the first three rounds combined with new greens at Harbour Town that are firm and relatively fast have made scoring difficult, and the winds were likely the strongest and most unpredictable on Saturday.
“The conditions were very blustery, the greens seemed to be getting firmer and faster, and it made for some tough golf out there,” Donald said. “Some pins were very hard to get to, almost impossible to get to. You had to really be patient on certain holes. I’m very happy with the way I played in general and felt like I hit a lot of good shots.”
Donald, 38, has five PGA Tour wins, including three in a 13-month stretch in 2011-12 during his ascension to the top spot in the world.
There's usually someone that comes out of the pack. I've got to go back out there and be aggressive. I can't sit out and think pars are good enough. I have to go out and shoot a good, solid round, especially if they’re saying it's going to be a little bit calmer tomorrow.
He began the third round a shot out of the lead behind Hoffman, world No. 1 Jason Day and Kevin Chappell, and while Day and Chappell fell off the pace with rounds of 79 and 75, respectively, Hoffman gave himself a chance Sunday with an even-par 71. Kokrak made the most significant move of the third round with his 68. He birdied three of the first five holes and played the remaining 13 holes even par to move within a shot of the lead and into the final twosome Sunday with Donald.
“It gave me a little bit of a cushion out here, because you’re going to make bogeys,” said Kokrak, a 30-year-old Canadian native in his fifth PGA Tour season.
Kokrak is seeking his first PGA Tour win and has had a pair of runner-ups, including the Northern Trust Open in February. He has made just one bogey in the past two rounds combined, and he has two bogeys and a double over 54 holes.
“I’m just trying not to put too much pressure on myself, not shooting at flags where I don’t need to and giving myself as many birdie opportunities as I can,” Kokrak said. “I love this golf course. I’ve been rolling a couple of the par savers in and I feel comfortable.”