(Reuters) – Defending champion Xander Schauffele set himself up for a successful repeat when he took a one-stroke lead in the third round at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii on Saturday.
Schauffele started the day leading by one and ended it the same way after a respectable two-under-par 71 in strong winds at the Kapalua Plantation course on the island of Maui.
He goes into Sunday’s final round at 11-under 208, with fellow American Justin Thomas nipping at his heels after a 69.
Schauffele, in uncharted territory with the first sole 54-hole lead of his PGA Tour career, is three shots clear of third-placed Gary Woodland (69).
Patrick Reed and Joaquin Niemann, who teed off one stroke behind Schauffele, both backtracked with matching 74s, falling four adrift.
Schauffele came from five shots behind in the final round last year, shooting 62, and is looking forward to playing from in front this time.
“This is a newish realm I’m in, sleeping on the lead,” said the four-times PGA Tour winner. “Tomorrow’s going to be even windier, I saw in the forecast. You can expect all sorts of things to happen and I’ll just go with the flow.”
Second-placed Thomas, the 2017 champion, scorched around the front nine in five under par, but could not continue the torrid pace, dropping a shot on his inward half.
It was, nonetheless, a four-shot improvement over his Friday score.
“I chipped the ball horrendously yesterday, looked like a 20-handicapper,” said the world’s No. 4-ranked golfer. “I’m pretty disappointed with my finish today. I could easily be 14 or 15 under now. I just need to build on that front nine.”
Third-placed Woodland last year led after 54 holes, only to finish second after being run down by the fast-finishing Schauffele.
This time Woodland will be the hunter after a round that included a double-bogey at the seventh.
“Outside of that I played really well,” said the U.S. Open champion.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Kim Coghill and Gerry Doyle)