(Reuters) – Tyrrell Hatton survived brutal conditions to eke out a two-stroke lead over former champions Rory McIlroy and Marc Leishman in the third round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida on Saturday.
On a day when a proverbial U.S. Open broke out and Brooks Koepka shot the highest score of his PGA Tour career, Hatton managed an excellent one-over-par 73 at Bay Hill in Orlando.
Boosted by an unlikely 30-foot birdie at the par-four 18th, the Englishman in search of his first PGA Tour title posted a six-under 210 total with one round left.
“You could be made to look pretty silly at times without hitting too bad a shot,” Hatton told reporters.
Northern Irishman McIlroy (73), who bogeyed the last after firing his second shot into rocks, and Australian Leishman (72) were equal second on four-under.
South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout, South Korean Im Sung-jae, New Zealander Danny Lee and American Harris English were three strokes behind.
South Korean Sung Kang, who shared the halfway lead with Hatton, triple-bogeyed the final hole after pulling his drive out-of-bounds. He previously had also tripled the 11th hole, shot 78 and fell five behind.
Kang was not the only player to run up a big number on a day of carnage as strong winds, rock-hard greens and thick rough conspired to prevent anyone from breaking 70 at the event for the first time in 40 years.
“It felt like a U.S. Open out there. It’s a nice change from the norm,” said world number one McIlroy, referring to the major championship which is often the toughest test of the year.
Leishman could hardly believe he had not broken par.
“I added my score up and did a double-take,” he said. “It added up to 72 (but) felt like a 65. Par was a great score. I like it when you have to play really well to shoot even par.”
Of the leading eight players, only McIlroy, Leishman and Bezuidenhout avoided a double-bogey or worse on a day when a few bogeys were pretty much unavoidable.
Even Hatton had a double, at the par-four ninth, while Lee doubled the last, and only then by sinking a 20-foot putt.
McIlroy predicted it would be a similarly stern test on Sunday, when the winds again are forecast to blow.
“Tomorrow it’s all about keeping the big numbers off your card and playing as conservatively as possible,” he said.
“I’m pretty confident in my game.”
American Koepka, the man McIlroy recently displaced as world number one, shot 81, which was nevertheless better than three others.
Max Homa was the only player to break par, shooting a 70 that included a double-bogey at the last. He trailed Hatton by seven shots.
“It’s nice to have a two-shot lead but today proved that there are doubles and triples just around the corner, so that two-shot lead can go extremely quickly,” said Hatton.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Daniel Wallis)