SOUTHPORT, England -- With Royal Birkdale playing easier than at any point in this week of the 146th Open, the opportunity was there for the field to post low numbers in Round 3 on Saturday.
Who took advantage? And who fluffed their lines? Time for grades.
After all the frustrations of the week (and, indeed, his previous two starts) this was a return to world No. 1 standards. After six birdies in 15 holes, he even had a shot at the magic number of 62, but it was not to be. Instead, he posted a 64, his career low round in a major. He'll take heart from a performance that offers promise for the future and even an outside shot at glory on Sunday. Remarkably, it was his first under-par round in a major since Sunday of last year's Open.
World ranking: No. 1
Score: 71-72-64 (-3)
After the second round we noted that Matsuyama was cultivating a yo-yo record in recent major championship golf, and he duly protected it Saturday. He went 76-70-74-67 in the Masters, 74-65-71-66 at the U.S. Open, and has now added 68-72-66 at Royal Birkdale. On Saturday, there was a blistering response to a bogey at the fourth -- a hat trick of birdies from the fifth to the seventh -- and two strong par-breakers on the back nine to ease into T-5.
World ranking: No. 2
Score: 68-72-66 (-4)
A sensational round from Spieth, who has been predatory through 54 holes this week. He eased himself to the turn with three birdies, repelling the advances of his nearest rivals, and ended the round with a final jab to their collective head with an impressive birdie conversion on the final green. He's held multiple-shot leads at majors five times after 54 holes and won every time. He's in prime position to win a third major and a first Claret Jug.
World ranking: No. 3
Score: 65-69-65 (-11)
McIlroy crafted the perfect start, with two early birdies followed by a 10-foot look at eagle on the fifth. When he left the putt short, the birdie felt like slim pickings, and a double-bogey-6 at the 10th completely took the wind from his sails. He did post a late birdie, but his Sunday round will be an exercise in sustaining the recovery in form rather than the hoped-for charge to victory.
World ranking: No. 4
Score: 71-68-69 (-2)
It was an ultra-neat display from the Spaniard, with two birdies and 16 pars. He's never been in contention this week, but he arrived at Royal Birkdale with an Open record of 10 top-10 finishes in 20 starts. An 11th is certainly not out of the question.
World ranking: No. 5
Score: 73-69-68 (even)
He thought he'd missed the cut after a terrible second round. "That's why I stormed off," he explained to the media. How did he calm down? A quiet sit in the car, a viewing of "The Expendables 2" , dinner and ice cream. And then? "After the ice cream I became a lot happier." It's unconventional, and the mind coach might blanch, but it's still a process and it prompted an error-free 5-under-par 65.
World ranking: No. 6
Score: 69-76-65 (even)
Absolutely no joy on the greens for the Spaniard, as he found 14 of them in regulation but made only one birdie (plus one bogey) in a round that by his standards was downright boring. Needed 32 putts, which rediscovers a pattern set in his previous major championship appearances: He was averaging 30.5 putts heading into this week and had bucked the trend Thursday and Friday with a combined total of 54.
World ranking: No. 7
Score: 69-74-70 (+3)
"Do not go gentle into that good night," poet Dylan Thomas wrote. "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." He was talking of growing old, but after a somewhat subdued defense of his Claret Jug so far this week, those words might apply to Stenson's Saturday. In striping six birdies on his way to a 5-under-par 65, the Swede gave the galleries a reminder of his magnificent weekend of golf at Troon 12 months ago.
World ranking: No. 8
Score: 69-73-65 (-3)
Noren kept bogeys off his card, but with the exception of the 14th, the birdies stayed off it too. His 1-under-par 69 dropped him four places on the leaderboard and almost certainly rules out a bid for the win. An element of doubt remains courtesy of his remarkable 10-under 62 to win the BMW PGA Championship. Realistically, a major championship career-best finish (bettering his T-9 in this event in 2012) would be a solid goal.
World ranking: No. 9
Score: 68-72-69 (-1)
Standing on the fifth tee, Fowler consulted the yardage book, noted the 280-yard carry, and concluded: "The numbers matched up." He then made a great swing, found the green of the par-4 and was inches from a double-eagle hole-in-one. The shot gets A-plus, but the round only a B. It was fun to finally break free of his mini-run of 71s, but barring a miracle he's bound only for more major championship frustration.
World ranking: No. 10
Score: 71-71-67 (-1)
The Great British weather
In Round 1 the wind was hard into the face of the golfers on the first tee. In Round 1, it was hard over the right shoulder. In Round 3, it was flat calm. We've had cloudy skies and clear blue skies -- on Saturday we even had both at once. We've sheltered from drizzle, showers and torrential downpours. We've pretty much had it all, and it's been a wonderful test. So what's Sunday got in store for us? Whatever it is, let's hope it upholds the run so far and is something new.
If ever a round of golf deserved an A-plus grade, it is this record-breaking one. He missed just two greens in regulation on the way to posting eight birdies in his bogey-free lap of Royal Birkdale, becoming the first golfer in history to record a 62 in a major. The closest he came to getting only an A? The fact that he was blissfully oblivious to what he was doing. But let's not quibble.
World ranking: No. 35
Score: 70-74-62 (-4)
By the time you read this, Willett might have completed his fourth round, never mind his third. Because although last year's Masters champion made the cut (something of a surprise given he had made just one in his past seven starts before arriving in Southport), he carded a third-round 73. It was the worst score of a freewheeling day and contained not one birdie when most scorecards were peppered with them. His woes appear far from over.
World ranking: No. 41
Score: 71-74-73 (+8)
"Austin who?" many might have asked at the start of the week. The Canadian plies his trade on Europe's second-tier Challenge Tour but has managed two top-10 finishes in rare starts on the main tour. Perhaps more importantly, he was brought up playing golf in gusty Texas, thrived in final qualifying at Royal Cinque Ports, and has ridden the linksland wave this week on a course he instantly fell in love with. The 20-year-old has been on the road, living out of a suitcase, since early May, but if he pegs a solid final round, he might be able to take a well-earned break.
World Ranking: No. 524
Score: 67-72-66 (-5)