World number three Justin Thomas birdied two of the last three holes to overtake second-ranked Jon Rahm for the lead after Saturday’s third round of the US PGA Zozo Championship.
Thomas fired a five-under par 67 to stand on 19-under 197 after 54 holes at Sherwood Country Club, edging ahead of Spain’s Rahm, who fired a 63 to stand on 198, with fellow American Lanto Griffin third on 199 after a 68.
“I can’t exactly go out and try to protect a lead,” Thomas said. “I’ve got to go out and build it. I need to play my game. I can’t do anything about everyone else.”
Colombia’s Sebastian Munoz and Americans Ryan Palmer and Patrick Cantlay shared fourth on 200, with Cantlay bogey-free through three days.
South African player Dylan Frittelli was one shot further back, in a tie for seventh position.
Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner, is chasing his 14th career tour title and his third of the year after the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January and the WGC St. Jude Invitational in August.
“I’ve been here a couple times and I have been successful,” Thomas said. “I’ll be able to draw on those past experiences tomorrow.”
Thomas opened with back-to-back birdies, followed a birdie at the par-4 seventh with a bogey at the par-3 eighth. He added birdies at the par-5 11th and 16th holes and curled in a birdie putt from just inside 28 feet at the par-3 17th to seize the lead alone.
“It’s huge,” Thomas said. “A day like today I felt like I was far from my best stuff. To salvage 5-under, which when it’s like this you need to do, is huge. I need to go back to what I was doing and get it done tomorrow.”
Standing in his way will be Rahm, who will overtake absent Dustin Johnson for world number one with a solo second-place finish or better.
Rahm, who hit every fairway, went six-under for his first seven holes, birdied to begin the back nine and again at the par-5 13th and par-3 17th in his sizzling 63.
“The course is gettable and lucky for me I started on fire,” Rahm said. “I was able to make a few putts and I was able to keep it going.”
“Somebody is going to come out tomorrow and shoot low,” Rahm said. “They have nothing to lose. I’m going to come out and try to do the same thing tomorrow.”
Rahm seeks his sixth career PGA title and third of the year after the Memorial tournament in July and the BMW Championship in August. He’s planning on a back-nine title shootout.
“It simplifies things. Somebody is going to come out tomorrow and shoot low,” Rahm said. “They have nothing to lose. I’m going to come out and try to do the same thing.”
World number 59 Griffin opened with four pars in a row, birdied the 10th and 14th as well, but stumbled with a bogey at the par-3 15th and another at 18 to fall two off the pace.
Defending champion Tiger Woods, who won last year in Japan before the event was moved to suburban Los Angeles due to the Covid-19 pandemic, fired a 71 to stand on 213.
Woods, a 15-time major champion set the defend the Masters title next month, made 10-foot birdie putts at the par-5 11th and par-3 17th to highlight his round.
“It wasn’t very good,” Woods said. “I hit a lot of balls left and made the round a lot harder than it should have been.”
Woods said the Masters plans to stage its traditional Champions Dinner in an area that allows for more social distancing.
“I think we’re not going to get a lot of the past champions coming because obviously they’re at the at-risk age,” Woods said. “The dinner is, as of right now, planned to go off and still have it.”
Tony Finau, playing his first event after a Covid-19 positive test, was sharing the lead when he made a triple bogey at the par-4 14th to fall back. He shot 69 to stand on 202.