St. Louis (AFP) – Tiger Woods charged into contention for his first major title in 10 years while two-time US Open champion Brooks Koepka seized a three-stroke lead at the turn in Saturday’s third round of the PGA Championship.
Woods, a 14-time major champion in his comeback season from spinal fusion surgery, birdied five of the first eight holes and shared sixth on eight-under par through 14 holes at Bellerive Country Club.
That left Woods five strokes off the pace of US compatriot Koepka, who birdied five of his first nine holes to make the turn on 13-under par, three shots ahead of Americans Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland with Australian Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, and American Kevin Kisner another stroke adrift.
Koepka, who in June became the first man to win back-to-back US Opens since Curtis Strange in 1988-89, could become only the fourth player to win the US Open and PGA Championship in the same year, following fellow Americans Gene Sarazen in 1922, Ben Hogan in 1948 and Jack Nicklaus in 1980.
Joining Woods at eight-under were second-ranked defending champion Justin Thomas, fellow American Pat Perez, Ireland’s Shane Lowry and British Open champion Francesco Molinari of Italy.
Woods, ranked 51st, won his most recent major title at the 2008 US Open and has not won any event since the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational but showed solid form last month by leading on the back nine Sunday at last month’s British Open.
The 42-year-old former world number one finished off the last 11 holes of a storm-halted second-round 66 Saturday morning, then delighted thousands of spectators following his every shot with a sizzling afternoon start.
Woods sank a 17-foot birdie putt on the first hole and dropped his 145-yard approach at the second to four feet with a 9-iron to set up a birdie.
After a bogey at the fifth, Woods responded with an 11-foot birdie putt at the par-3 sixth, a seven-footer for birdie at the par-4 seventh and a six-foot birdie putt at the par-5 eighth, the crowds and buzz around him growing with every hole.
At the 10th, Woods found the right rough and pitched to eight feet then made a tension-packed putt to rescue par, a right fist-pump showing his joy at avoiding a third consecutive bogey on the hole.
Woods, who has never won a major title when not leading after 54 holes, owns 79 career PGA titles, three shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record.
Woods has been pressing to play for the US Ryder Cup team but must win the PGA to automatically qualify for the squad going to France next month to defend the trophy against Europe.
– Koepka charges to top –
Koepka, who missed the Masters with a left wrist injury, opened birdie-birdie to grab the lead after playing partner Woodland made bogey at the second, but Woodland birdied the third hole to pull level.
Koepka birdied the fifth then matched Woodland’s birdie at the par-5 eighth to stay on top, stretching the margin with an 11-foot birdie putt at the ninth while Woodland made bogey.
Birdies were abundant early, a hint that scoring conditions might rival those of Friday, when three players made a run at matching the all-time low major round of 62 by Branden Grace of South Africa from last year’s British Open.
Ninth-ranked Fowler, this year’s Masters runner-up seeking his first major title despite eight top-five major finishes, completed a morning 67 to lift himself into the hunt.
After finishing the second round, the 80 who made the cut were sent off the first and 10th tees in trios in a bid to complete the third round by sunset.
“It’s going to be a long day,” Fowler said.
– Spieth triple-bogey shock –
Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, trying to complete a Career Grand Slam with a victory this weekend, got to within four of the lead but was undone with a triple bogey at the par-4 12th after going out of bounds with his second shot.
Spieth could join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan as the only players to win each major crown at least once.
The feat has never been culminated at a PGA but it has been completed at Bellerive — South Africa’s Player when he won the 1965 US Open.