By Tom Gaffney
Beacon Journal staff writer
The course was compliant, the scores were low and the leaderboard was fluid.
The third round of the Bridgestone Invitational on the South Course at Akron's Firestone Country Club on Saturday was as unpredictable as it was dizzying to follow.
Contenders emerged and then disappeared, only to reappear. Names were on the lips of fans one moment and forgotten the next.
Retief Goosen of South Africa was the second-round leader but fell all the way to 13th place on the first hole when he recorded a triple bogey.
Midway through the afternoon, seven players were tied for the lead. Eventually, Ryan Palmer and Sean O'Hair of the United States concluded the proceedings with a share of first place at 9-under 201, which was 1 shot ahead of another American, Matt Kuchar.
More of the same can be expected for the final round today, since 18 other players are perched within 5 shots of the co-leaders.
''Hopefully, it's an exciting tournament [today]. It looks like there's a potential for anybody in that range of 4 under to have a chance because you can get it going around here,'' Kuchar said. ''The leaders can have some trouble. It's not one where you have to shoot a 59 and come from behind because the leaders could make birdies, but the leaders could struggle.
''There also is the potential to shoot a low number and really move up the leaderboard, so it should make for an exciting finish.''
The potential for excitement is heightened because the soft conditions on the South Course have allowed players to be more aggressive off the tee, to the greens and on the greens. Being able to control the direction and speed of the ball allows more gambling.
The result Saturday was a series of low scores that rarely have been seen on the usually challenging South Course.
Katsumasa Miyamoto of Japan fashioned the round of the day with an 8-under 62, just 1 shot off the competitive course record.
Co-leaders Palmer and O'Hair were not far off that pace with scores of 63 and 64, respectively. Ernie Els began the day in a tie for 24th place and ended in a tie for fourth place with a 64.
Overall, 47 of the 80 players in the field finished at par or lower, including 35 in the 60s.
''The fairways are soft still and the greens are soft,'' Palmer said. ''Obviously, it's perfect out there, and the guys are scoring.''
Phil Mickelson was not one of the low scorers, struggling to a round of 71 that included four bogeys. But he was bunched with the long list of contenders at 5-under 205 and in a tie for 10th place.
''I'm only 4 back. I fought hard today . . . to stay within striking distance,'' said Mickelson, who could move to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings with a victory. ''I think the later groups found it tough today, with all the guys shooting 6, 7, 8 under par in front of us.
''We felt like we had to force the issue. If I can make some birdies tomorrow, hopefully I can give those leaders the same feeling.''
Palmer, 33, of Colleyville, Texas, has three titles since joining the tour in 2004, including the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. But since then, he has missed the cut 12 times in 18 tournaments.
On Saturday, his bogey-free 63 included seven birdies, with many of them set up by iron shots to the greens that left him with desirable putts.
''I was able to put the ball on the greens in the right spots and made a lot of good putts,'' said Palmer, who finished in a tie for third in the 2005 NEC Invitational, his only other appearance at Firestone. ''It was a fun day.''
O'Hair, 28, of West Chester, Pa., also has three titles in a tour career that began in 2005, after several years on the Nationwide Tour.
His bogey-free third round of 64 got off to spectacular start when he sank a 14-foot putt on No. 2 for an eagle. He also had birdie putts of 21, 13, 21 and four feet.
''It was pretty big breaker, kind of one of those touch putts. I guessed it properly,'' O'Hair said about the eagle putt. ''That kind of kicked off my round in a nice way.''
Kuchar, 32, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., also had a productive start when he birdied the first two holes, making two 9-foot putts. His round of 66 included three other birdies and one bogey.
''It was a solid round of golf today,'' said Kuchar, who has two tour titles in a career marked by a 2005 season in which he lost his tour card and regained it on the Nationwide Tour for 2007. ''It was fairways and greens today, and I'd like to have another one of those tomorrow.''
Els, 40, who has won three majors (1994 and 1997 U.S. Opens and 2002 British Open) among his 18 tour titles, was steady all day, hitting 11 out of 14 fairways and 13 out of 18 greens in regulation.
He also needed only 25 putts, highlighted by birdie ones of 22 feet on No. 7 and 26 feet on No. 11.
''I felt I was in control of my ball off the tees and I gave myself a lot of opportunities. When I didn't, I got the ball up-and-down,'' Els said. ''It was really a nice round.''
Els was tied for fourth at 205 with Justin Leonard of Dallas and Peter Hanson of Sweden.
Defending champion Tiger Woods shot a 5-under 75, which was his worst score in 47 rounds at Firestone. He was in 78th place in the 80-player field.
Former Kent State All-American Ben Curtis shot a 1-over 71 for a total of even 210, good enough for a tie for 36th place.