PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Justin Leonard walked toward the 12th green Saturday at Innisbrook and saw a scoreboard that showed he was tied for the lead in the Tampa Bay Championship. He knocked in his 8-foot birdie putt, assumed he was ahead, and then never looked at another board the rest of the day.
He might do the same Sunday.
There's no point in staring at scores, not with so many names separated by so few shots. Besides, the Copperhead course at Innisbrook is playing so difficult even in pleasant weather that it's best not to think about anything except the next shot.
"It is hard," Leonard said after his 4-under 67 put him in a three-way tie for the lead with Kevin Streelman and George Coetzee of South Africa. "There's not a whole lot of birdie holes on those last six holes. With the greens getting firmer and faster as they did today – which I'm sure they will again tomorrow. You have to be pretty patient out there and really pick your spots pretty carefully."
Adam Scott and K.J. Choi set the tone early for this wild day by going into full retreat.
That allowed for a game of musical chairs at the top of the leaderboard, with nothing remotely close to being settled going into the final day. Sixteen players were separated by only three shots at a tournament where the winner has come from behind to win in four of the last five years.
Streelman finished his 6-under 65 nearly three hours before the last group walked off the 18th green.
"I wanted to get to 6 under today," Streelman said. "I had that number in my mind to at least have a chance going into tomorrow, so I was happy to get there."
He had no idea at the time he would all the way to the top of the leaderboard.
Leonard ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch around the turn and had the lead to himself before a bogey from the bunker on the 15th. Coetzee bounced back from his lone bogey with a birdie on the rowdy 17th hole, where Hooters waitresses serve wings in the grandstands. That gave him a 68.
They were tied at 6-under 207, more evidence that the Copperhead course is perhaps the most complete test in Florida. Even on a warm, breezy afternoon, it was easier to go backward that to move away from the field.
Scott and Choi were proof of that.
Scott had a two-putt birdie on the opening hole to briefly take the lead, and that was the highlight of his day. He three-putted from about 15 feet for bogey on third, made bogey with a wedge in his hand on the par-5 fifth hole and stumbled to a 76. Choi, who also was one shot out of the lead, didn't make a birdie in his round of 76.
They still were only five shots out of the lead.
Shawn Stefani, the 31-year-old rookie who led by one, had a 74 and still was only two shots behind. His day could have been much worse except for a tee shot that caromed off a tree and into the fairway on the second hole, and a big hook on the third that hit the tire of a golf cart and stayed in play. Instead of hitting his third shot from the tee, he could reach the green for a two-putt par.
The group one shot out of the lead included 2010 winner Jim Furyk (67) and Ben Kohles (69), the Virginia grad who last summer went from college to two straight wins on the Web.com Tour to earn a spot in the big leagues.
Defending champion Luke Donald had a 67 and was only two shots behind at 4-under 209, along with 19-year-old Jordan Spieth of Texas, who is coming off a runner-up finish in Puerto Rico and can be set for the year on the PGA Tour the rest of the year depending on how he plays Sunday.
He looks as if he's good enough to win.
The group at 3 under included Harris English, in a tie for the lead on the front nine until he stumbled to a 73, and Sergio Garcia, who never looked happy and sounded even worse on his way to a 72.
English is among 12 players from the top 16 who are not yet eligible for the Masters, and a win on Sunday would take care of that.
Leonard has gone 122 starts on the PGA Tour over nearly five years since his last win, though he felt comfortable in the lead for the final few hours of the third round. Innisbrook requires more smarts than just smashing the ball off the tee, and Leonard used the ninth hole as an example of thinking his way around. Realizing the pin was not tucked on the side, he laid back off the tee with a 3-wood, and then hit 6-iron into 10 feet for a birdie.
He also got up-and-down from a front bunker on the 11th, and then hit 6-iron to 8 feet on the 12th. His only regret was missing a 5-foot birdie on the 17th that would have given him the outright lead. Not that it would have mattered all that much.
There's a good chance he won't even be among the leaders when he tees off.
Spieth, meanwhile, is in a great spot – and not just on the leaderboard.
He had no status this year after turning pro, but he had two good finishes on the Web.com Tour that has left him about $4,500 short of securing status. He was thinking about sticking with the Web.com Tour until deciding to honor the exemption he was given to the Puerto Rico Open, and that worked out well.
"My focus had been on the Web.com," he said. "Now my focus is out there. It's a nice change."
But he's thinking more about the top of the leaderboard than how much money he needs to earn this week, and he has just as good of a chance as anyone. Spieth showed his shot making with a 6-iron out of the trees that led to 12-foot birdie on the 16th.
"That wasn't a smart shot," he said with a smile.
Coetzee is part of a group of young South Africans who have worked their way into the top 50 in the world, and he'll make his Masters debut next month. The best part about a chance to win is getting his PGA Tour card.
He was flirting with the cut line with nine holes to play Friday until a 32 on the back nine, and then a solid round today. Coetzee is still finding his way in America, uncertain about the courses and not knowing the faces that go with the names.
"Golf is golf," he said. "Doesn't matter where you play, everybody still gets to the golf course, and nobody knows what's going to happen."
That could be especially true Sunday.