Dustin Johnson is learning his way around a golf course he avoided for so long.
If he’s playing well, he said early in the week, any course should fit his game. And Johnson seems equipped with the knowledge now to place his ball around a Harbour Town Golf Links that favors precision over brawn.
Armed with more familiarity and a hot putter, the No. 1 player in the world has worked his way to the top of the leaderboard at the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing after three rounds while drawings a huge following in his home state. He is 10 under and one shot clear of a group that includes Ian Poulter, Rory Sabbatini and Shane Lowry.
Johnson is trying to become just the second South Carolina native to win the state’s PGA Tour event. His 3-under 68 Saturday was fueled by three consecutive birdies starting on No. 13, draining putts of 18 feet, 47 feet and 13 feet.
Harbour Town’s small greens baffled Johnson in 2018, his first appearance on Hilton Head in almost 10 years. He has solved them better through 54 holes this year, though he couldn’t say why.
“They just went in,” Johnson said. “I wish I knew the secret, but I don’t.”
Behind Johnson is a past champion with plenty of experience on Hilton Head Island and numerous other capable contenders who peppered the leaderboard at the 51st RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing with red numbers despite continuing windy conditions.
Johnson’s lead could have been larger before he gave back shots with bogeys at Nos. 16 and 17.
Shane Lowry, a Northern Irishman trying to earn his second PGA Tour win, at one point led by three but stumbled coming in and will now chase Johnson.
The Columbia native will try to buck recent history at Harbour Town, where a 54-hole lead has not been safe.
For the past six years the winner was more than three shots back to start the final round. Most recently Satoshi Kodaira was six behind before winning in a playoff in 2018.
Hold on to your Easter sun hats.
“I certainly would love to say ‘Listen, I’m going to go out there and I’m going to shoot 64,’” said Matt Kuchar, who shot that number to win in 2014 and is three shots behind Johnson. “I’d love to be able to do that. But golf is an interesting game and you don’t have control over that.”
Fifty-six players completed their second rounds Saturday morning after storms swept over Sea Pines on Friday afternoon. When the third round began under a cool, sunny skies, players went low despite continuing to contend with the wind.
Scott Piercy opened his round with four consecutive birdies before cooling and is 8 under.
Patrick Cantlay, who contended at the Masters the previous week, fired a bogey-free round of 66 and is among those at 8 under. Matt Kuchar, who won here in 2014, reached 7 under.
Poulter overcame a double bogey at the first to play flawless golf the final 17 holes, with six birdies on the way to a second 67.
“I’m in contention, which is what I like to be on Sunday,” Poulter said. “As often as I’ve done that this year, I haven’t quite finished one off. It would be nice to go out tomorrow and be aggressive where I can and obviously see if I can get close.”
Johnson is seeking his second win of the season and 21st of his career. He maintained his stoic demeanor during his surge to the lead while an active, wall-to-wall crowd cheered each step.
Lowry had showed no willingness to step aside until making thee bogeys in four holes starting at No 13. Before that stretch, he led the field in scrambling and his only bogey of the tournament was on No. 7 during the second round.
That cleared the path for Johnson with 18 holes remaining.
“I’m going to play the course hopefully the same way that I played the first three rounds, as far as the way I’m going to attack the course,” Johnson said. “...It’s a golf course where there are a lot of positions. You’re just trying to put it on one side of the fairway or another.”