In the crowd-free quiet of the P.G.A. Championship on Saturday, Collin Morikawa could hear two kayakers on the lake below the 16th hole of TPC Harding Park trying to identify golfers on the cliff above them. Eventually, the pair came up with the name of the player walking with Morikawa — Adam Scott, the former world No. 1 from Australia.
They didn’t recognize Morikawa, whose profile is becoming a lot higher this weekend.
Morikawa, 23, put himself squarely into contention ahead of Sunday’s final round with a five-under-par 65 on the often-vexing San Francisco municipal course. His 54-hole total of seven under left him two strokes behind the leader, Dustin Johnson, who also shot a 65.
At sea level and often covered in misty air, Harding has upended the norms of swing speeds and ball flights for the best players in the world. For Morikawa, though, it has been something of a comfort zone.
“It helps, I’ve played here maybe a dozen times,” Morikawa said of Harding. “I’ve played it enough. It helped to show up Tuesday and know the course already. I knew the layout. I didn’t have to figure out the putting green. It helps, not have to worry about learning the ropes.”
Morikawa played college golf at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a three-time first-team All-American and reached the top spot in the world’s amateur golf ranking. Twenty-one miles from the Berkeley campus, Morikawa is playing in his second major championship as a pro; he competed in the United States Open last year.
His third round on Saturday, anchored by a brilliant stretch of birdies at Nos. 15, 16 and 17, left him with a significant role in Sunday’s script.
The list of contenders will include other youngsters like Cameron Champ, 25, another native Californian, who leads the field in driving distance and shot a 67 to finish the day at eight under, tied for second place with Scottie Scheffler, a 24-year-old Texan and a tour rookie who was low amateur at the 2017 U.S. Open. Scheffler shot a 65.
Then there will be familiar characters like Brooks Koepka, who was seven under for the tournament and striving at age 30 to win a third consecutive P.G.A. Championship and his fifth major over all. Also at seven under is Paul Casey, a 43-year-old Englishman looking for his first major title. And, of course, there is the 36-year-old Johnson.
This is the fourth time Johnson has taken at least a share of the lead into the final round of a major. He did not win the three other tournaments. His only major title came at the 2016 U.S. Open, where he was tied for second going into the final round.
“I was definitely a lot younger,” Johnson said Saturday of the three misses. “I have been out here for a while now. I’ve been in contention a lot, and I’ve got it done a lot of times.”
Johnson has 21 career wins, including one in June at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut. He leads the field in strokes gained putting and credits not only his reading of the speed of the Harding Park greens but also a switch back to his old Spider putter. He made eight birdies on Saturday, the most he has ever made in a round at a major. Johnson will be joined by Scheffler in Sunday’s final twosome.
Morikawa represents a new wave of player making marks on the PGA Tour since it restarted after the coronavirus pandemic halted play for almost three months.
He lost a playoff to another young star, Daniel Berger, in the first event back from the pandemic layoff, at Colonial in June, only to outlast the world No. 1, Justin Thomas, in a three-hole playoff at the Workday Charity Open one month later for his second professional win. Bryson DeChambeau, 26, and Jon Rahm, 25, have also won on tour since the restart.
Still learning his craft at the highest level, Morikawa said playing with veterans like Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson earlier in the week had helped him change his putting approach. After being paired with Scott on Saturday, Morikawa said the rhythmic beauty of the Australian’s swing had helped his tempo all day.
The interlude with the kayakers, though, reminded him of what was missing.
“If there were fans, I’d feel like a little more of a major feel, with big crowds,” Morikawa said, looking forward to Sunday’s round. “But yeah, I feel very comfortable, and that’s always a good sense. Three birdies in my last four holes show I’ll be ready.”
The pandemic not only delayed the P.G.A. Championship by three months but also, when all the rescheduling was done, made it the first men’s major since the British Open in July 2019. Johnson indicated that the absence of spectators, another concession to the coronavirus, might have benefited newer players on tour.
“Playing without big crowds helps guys who haven’t been there, because big crowds play a big part,” Johnson said. But on Sunday, he added, “everyone is still going to feel it.”
The names at the top of the leader board mean that, unlike the fairways at Harding Park, the chase for the Wanamaker Trophy is wide open.
Chaos can reign on a weekend at a major: Li Haotong, the second-round leader, lost a golf ball in a cypress tree on the back nine on his way to a 73 on Saturday. Those who embrace the vagaries of a municipal course with idiosyncrasies are surging to the fore.
“It’s a really pretty place — I like the cypress trees,” said Scheffler, whose 65 matched Morikawa. “It’s got a good look for me.”
A player who knows something about what it will take to win on Sunday offered some thoughts. Tiger Woods, after struggling again with a two-over 72, provided his analysis of the final chase.
“You see the same handful of guys up there, they understand how to win major championships” Woods said, before name-checking Koepka. “We see Brooksy up there again. Guys who understand how to play tough golf courses and tough venues tend to be up there, whether it’s with crowds or no crowds.”
Koepka shared Woods’s perspective and alluded to Johnson’s history of vulnerability. “I like my chances,” Koepka said. “When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized.
“I don’t know,” he added, noting that Johnson had “only won one, so — I’m playing good, so we’ll see.”