OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. — Jordan Spieth delivered most of the excitement Saturday at The Northern Trust with three birdies in a four-hole stretch on the front nine to take the lead, and then three straight birdies on the back nine to pull away from a strong cast of contenders.
Now if he can just inject a little boredom into his life.
Spieth matched the low score of the tournament at Glen Oaks Club with a 6-under 64, giving him a three-shot lead over Dustin Johnson as he tries to embellish an already strong reputation as a closer.
Based on the last few months, however, his record only looks good on paper.
“It’s easier to win from that position. You’ve got an advantage on the field,” Spieth said. “But look at my last lead — three shots, and that was gone by the fourth hole. Anything can happen on Sunday.”
He was referring to the British Open, where he lost a comfortable lead in the first hour, finally fell behind on the 13th hole and then put together one of the best finishing stretches in major championship history at Royal Birkdale to beat Matt Kuchar.
He could have just as easily been referring to The Travelers a month earlier, where he struggled so mightily with his putting that he had to save par from a bunker to get into a playoff, then won on the first extra hole by holing a bunker shot.
“I imagine it’s not like guys that were chasing Tiger where you almost feel hopeless and you try and do all you can,” Spieth said. “Because I’ve shown that things can get a little off, and have to get back on track.”
He was on the right track on another glorious afternoon of sunshine on Long Island. It was the second straight day that Spieth filled his card with birdies on the easier back nine at Glen Oaks — a 30 on Friday, a 31 on Saturday.
Johnson, his regular partner at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, failed to take advantage until he stuffed his approach into 4 feet on the 18th hole for a birdie and a 67 to narrow the gap and get into the final group with Spieth.
Spieth was at 12-under 198, and his reputation — even for a 24-year-old in his fifth year on the PGA Tour — is as daunting as the size of his lead. Spieth has a 9-5 record with at least a share of the 54-hole lead, including nine of his last 10.
“Ten except for one hole,” he said with a smile, referring to the quadruple bogey he made on the 12th hole at Augusta National that cost him the 2016 Masters.
Paul Casey, who seems to play his best golf this time of the year, and defending champion Patrick Reed each hat a 66 and were next in line at five shots back, along with Jon Rahm (67) and Kuchar (68).
Missing from the mix are Jhonattan Vegas and Rickie Fowler, who started the third round as part of the four-way tie for the lead that included Spieth and Johnson. Vegas shot a 72 to fall eight shots behind. Fowler, playing with Spieth, opened with five bogeys in six shots and fell 10 shots behind after a 74.
“A five-shot lead requires two things — a really good round from whoever is coming from behind and the leader to stumble a little bit,” Rahm said. “And Spieth is not known for being one to stumble.”
Spieth would love nothing more than a Sunday like Pebble Beach, where he had a six-shot lead and closed with two birdies, no bogeys and no excitement.
“I don’t expect it, though,” Spieth said.
He didn’t have reason to believe he would have a three-shot lead when the third round began with so many players in the mix. Johnson took the early lead with a birdie from the bunker on the par-5 third hole, and then Spieth began the first of two big runs. He holed birdie putts of 20 feet, 12 feet and 25 feet over a four-hole stretch, and looked as though the lead would get even bigger when he settled over an 8-foot birdie chance on the ninth hole.
And then he three-putted with an aggressive stroke on a downhill putt. Spieth bounced back with a birdie on the 10th, and then after failing to birdie the lone par 5 on the back nine, he went back to work with the putter with a 10-foot birdie on No. 14, a 20-foot birdie on the par-3 15th and a shot into 4 feet on the 16th for three in a row.
Johnson stopped hitting it close and twice had to work hard not to lose ground.
At three shots behind, he still looms as a big threat as the No. 1 player in the world whose game is rounding back into the form that made him appear to be so unbeatable until his back injury before the Masters.
“Let’s be honest here — I’d rather have a three-shot lead,” Johnson said. “But it’s not that bad coming from three shots back, either, because that can change in one hole, really. But obviously, Jordan is playing really well, so he’s going to be tough to beat tomorrow. … If I can drive it well again tomorrow and maybe hole a couple putts, maybe some of his putting will rub off on me and I’ll start holing them.”
Spieth will be going for his fourth victory of the year, one that would make him the front-runner for PGA Tour player of the year.