SHANGHAI – Even with two majors, five victories, a FedEx Cup title and over $22 million in earnings this year, Jordan Spieth offered an honest appraisal about the final World Golf Championship of the year. He really didn’t think he would have much of a chance in the HSBC Champions.
Now he does.
The third round at Sheshan International ended Saturday in the dark with Kevin Kisner holding a one-shot lead, Russell Knox choosing to return Sunday morning to finish the round and see if he could tie him, Dustin Johnson playing mistake-free to pull within one shot, and Li Haotong giving China hope that one of its own could win on a world stage.
And then there was Spieth, right where he has been so much of the year.
“My theory on the tour and trying to win is your lead is never safe because some guy is going to make birdies,” Kisner said after a 2-under 70. “Look at Jordan today. His name popped up. I don’t even know where he started and he was on the leaderboard.”
Some 24 hours earlier, Spieth was 12 shots behind and wondering he could even make another par. He ended Friday with two birdies, and then raced up the leaderboard in soft conditions Saturday with a 9-under 63 to go from the middle of the pack to three shots behind.
“This will be the first and only time I would say this, but I was not expecting myself to be in this position come Sunday when the week started,” Spieth said with a smile. “I came in with very little confidence in my trust of what I’m trying to do in my swing. … But yeah, I’m extremely pleased just to be in contention.”
Finishing it off doesn’t figure to be easy.
Kisner chipped in for birdie on the 15th hole to go from a two-shot deficit to a tie for the lead when Knox three-putted for bogey, and the 31-year-old American pulled ahead with a birdie on the 16th and two pars to finish at 16-under 200.
Johnson, who won the HSBC Champions the last time he was here two years ago, has made 10 birdies in his last 21 holes and shot a 65. Li wasted no time getting the Chinese gallery fired up when he opened with four straight birdies on his way to a 66.
“It’s going to be a dog fight tomorrow no matter what,” Kisner said.
Spieth felt he was struggling to avoid his club face being shut during the final month of the PGA Tour season, and he has been working on a fix that is difficult for him. But he found a swing thought on the practice range Saturday morning and hit the ball so well that he shot 63 despite missing four putts inside 10 feet.
“I’m not going to complain about the round, but I felt like the way I played could have been 10 or 11 (under) for sure,” Spieth said.
He finished with a bold move. Spieth had 239 yards to the hole, which required a precise carry over the water, on the par-5 18th. He could get there with a 3-iron if he flushed it, so caddie Michael Greller suggested he play it safe.
“Michael said, ‘It’s a bad number. Let’s lay up and make birdie with a wedge,’ Spieth said. “I said, ‘I’m not laying up from 239. So I hit a 3-wood and aimed 30 yards left of the green with a big cut. I cut it a little too much. I was trying to get in the middle of the green, and it went further right and closer to the hole.”
He missed the eagle putt from 15 feet, typical of his round. He still had another chance to win, typical of his year.
Knox birdied his opening three holes and built a two-shot lead with a birdie on the 11th. But he three-putted the 15th, narrowly avoided another bogey on No. 16 by making an 8-foot putt and missed on a short birdie attempt on the 17th. With the option to finish in the dark – as Kisner and Branden Grace did – Knox chose to wait.
Li might have wished for this day to never end.
China’s brightest young star, he played the PGA Tour China series last year and earned Web.com Tour status, and he was in range to earn a PGA Tour card this year until fading late in the season. Playing before a home crowd – he grew up in Shanghai and plays out of Lake Malaren, home of next week’s BMW Masters – he prepared Friday night to cope with the stress and pressure and turned it into the most fun he’s had on a golf course.
“I never thought I could play that good,” Li said. “Can’t believe it.”
Liang Wenchong, who tied for eighth in the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, is the only other Chinese player to finish in the top 10 in a PGA Tour event. Even though Li is only one shot behind, he kept his goal modest. He wants to finish in the top 10.
Can he win?
In an press conference in Chinese, Li answered in English with a big laugh.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Patrick Reed (68) and Ross Fisher (65) joined Spieth at 13-under 203, with Grace playing the final three holes in 3 under for a 70. He was four shots behind. Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler each shot 68 and were eight shots behind.