Three rounds are complete at the 2012 Open Championship, and one player is firmly positioned above the rest as the field prepares for the final 18 holes at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
Adam Scott, ranked No. 13 in the world, fired a two-under par 68 on "moving day" and opened a commanding four-shot lead over two other players—second-round leader Brandt Snedeker and U.S. Open runner-up Graeme McDowell.
One more shot back at six under par is Tiger Woods, who continues the quest for his first major championship victory since 2008 and the 15th major of his storied career.
Surprisingly, the weather in Lancashire, England has played little to no role in the tournament thus far. The third round found many golfers in short sleeves as temperatures were in the 60s under sunny skies with virtually no wind. But if the Sunday forecast proves correct—with gusty winds up to 25 mph predicted—the comfort the players have enjoyed during the first three rounds could come to an abrupt end.
It could also allow a lot of golfers to get into the mix. When you combine strong winds with deep pot bunkers and thick rough—something these players have yet to experience at the Open Championship—not to mention Sunday major championship pressure, scores can disintegrate rapidly.
It's Adam Scott's tournament for the taking at this moment, but here are nine more contenders poised to take home the Claret Jug as the 2012 Open Championship winner.
It seems like Adam Scott's time for a major championship win. But something about the "big-stage" experience of Graeme McDowell and Tiger Woods is keeping me from simply handing the Claret Jug to Scott right now.
Scott is unquestionably talented enough to own a major. But he will need to deal with not only the final round pressure a major brings to the equation, but also the weather conditions, come what may.
One thing working in Scott's favor is the obvious four-shot cushion, but he's not looking at that as much of an advantage.
"A four‑shot lead doesn't seem to be very much this year on any golf tournament that I've watched," Scott said Saturday. "That doesn't mean a lot. The good part is if I play a solid round of golf tomorrow, it will be very hard for the others to beat me, and that's all I'm thinking about."
And if there's anything to it, Scott could also become part of the trend of recent first-time major winners. Ask Webb Simpson. Ask Bubba Watson. Ask Keegan Bradley. Adam Scott seems like the logical choice.
Scott has managed rounds of 64, 67 and 68 to get to this point.
He has never been in this position before. And Sunday will likely be the toughest 18 holes of his career. But with a four-shot lead, it will take an epic collapse on his part to not win his first major.
If Adam Scott doesn't get the job done on Sunday, I believe Graeme McDowell is next in line to hoist the Claret Jug.
McDowell is coming off a second-place finish at the U.S. Open where he played in the final group on Sunday with Jim Furyk, and while he'll certainly have as much anxiety as anyone else in contention, he also has to be the most comfortable with his surroundings.
"I can't expect to win this week," McDowell said after his round Saturday. "But what I can expect to do is compete. And if I do the right things and give myself a chance to be within three or four of the lead going into a Sunday afternoon playing with the leader, that's really all I can ask for myself the last few days."
McDowell fired an impressive three-under-par 67 Saturday—his second three-under-par round of the championship—to reserve his spot in the final game. Sure, he has a four-shot deficit to overcome, but it will be his job to apply pressure to Scott in a head-to-head manner. And I can't think of another player better equipped to handle that role at this time than Graeme McDowell.
Brandt Snedeker has to be tremendously disappointed following his third-round performance.
After playing mistake-free golf for two rounds—and going 40 holes without so much as a bogey on his score card—Snedeker fell apart, ultimately shooting a three-over-par 73 to lose his 36-hole lead.
But here's the good news: Snedeker is far from being out of this golf tournament, trailing by just four shots.
"It was kind of one of those days where—very frustrating," Snedeker admitted in his post-round presser. "I played very poorly on about as easy as we're going to see it. And I'm not happy with it at all, by any means. But those two birdies late salvaged what could have been a horrific round into a pretty awful round. So I've still got a chance tomorrow. I've come from behind before, I can do it again tomorrow. The conditions will be tough, which is good. So hopefully I can keep it going."
If he can forget what happened Saturday and somehow return to the impeccable form that enabled him to get to 10 under par after two rounds, he could still win his first major championship.
Like Adam Scott, Snedeker has some major top 10s to his credit. He'll once again have the opportunity to prove he has what it takes to win on one of the biggest stages in professional golf.
We all know what Tiger Woods has done throughout his career. And we also know what he hasn't done. He hasn't surpassed Jack Nicklaus for the most major championship victories in the history of the sport.
Jack has 18. Tiger has 14. And that's how it's been since Tiger won the U.S. Open in 2008.
The argument as to whether Tiger is "back" or not continues. But few would dispute it if Tiger is able to overcome a five-shot deficit to win his fourth Open Championship Sunday.
"I'm five back," Tiger said after his third round. "So Adam is in a great spot right now, he's got a four‑shot lead and he's playing really well. He's going for his first major title. So, he's in a very good spot ... It all depends on what happens and the conditions. But in either case, I just have to go out and execute my plan."
His plan will be to make as many birdies as possible without taking any unnecessary risks that could backfire. Tiger will need to watch the leaderboard. And if he comes out on top, it would give him four tournament victories on the year and likely cement his status as the 2012 Player of the Year.
Oh, and it would temporarily silence his critics.
Tiger wasn't as sharp during the third round as he was over the course of the first two rounds at Lytham, but he's still very much in the mix, and you have to like his experience if it comes down to a duel with Adam Scott—or anyone else without a major championship victory to their credit.
Ernie Els might be 42 years old, but his combination of experience (three majors including one Open Championship victory) and current success (rounds of 67, 70 and 68 this week at Lytham) makes him a viable contender despite being six shots behind the leader after 54 holes.
"For some reason I've got some belief this week," Els said Saturday, according to ASAP Sports. "I feel something special can happen. I feel I've put in a lot of work the last couple of—let's call it the last couple of years, especially the last couple of months. So, something good is bound to happen. Hopefully it's tomorrow."
It would be something of a miracle, but miracles happen everyday, right?
Els has been playing great golf for most of the year. And remember, he recorded a top 10 at the U.S. Open last month. So, if he gets his putter going Sunday, he could make a run at the leaders.
Zach Johnson carded the best score in the field on Saturday with a four-under-par 66. And if it weren't for a major stumble on Friday when he shot 74, he might be leading this championship.
Johnson has been aggressive and he plans to continue playing that way.
"My approach tomorrow won't be any different, I don't think," he said after his round Saturday. "It's going to be just hitting solid shots and giving myself opportunities. I'm hitting a lot of greens, and that's what I've got to continue to do. If I can keep hitting greens, get an occasional long putt to drop, you never know what can happen."
That's all a player that's six shots back can hope for.
Coming off a win at the John Deere Classic last week, Johnson has all the momentum. If he can produce another round similar to Thursday (he shot a 65) or Saturday, he'll give himself a chance to win his second major.
Thorbjorn Olesen passed a difficult test Saturday.
Playing with his boyhood idol, Tiger Woods, for the first time, the 22-year-old Olesen held his own, shooting a one-over-par 71. When you factor in the pressure of the championship plus the attention of playing with the most popular player in the world, he did quite well.
"It was nice," Olesen said with a smile after his third round. "I really enjoyed it. Great guy, great player, fantastic. I really enjoyed to play with him. And it's great crowds out there, also. So it's just really fantastic for me to try that."
Of course, nobody expects him to come from seven shots back to win his first major, but that might be exactly why he plays with a carefree style that could serve him well.
Well enough to win the Open Championship? OK, I doubt it, but that's why they play the final round. Olesen's got a ton of talent, and he could get hot enough to pull it off with some help from those in front of him.
Thomas Aiken is not entirely in unfamiliar territory.
At 29 years old, Aiken has one top-10 finish in a major championship in his career—a T-8 at the Open in 2008. But that's it. None of his other major efforts have come close.
Aiken seems more poised for another T-8 rather than a win on Sunday, but his play over the first three rounds (scores of 68, 68 and 71) has been impressive. And he believes he still has a chance.
"I've by no means played my way out of it," he said in his post-round presser. "I would have liked a few more, but I'd say if I get off to a solid start tomorrow, you never know. I mean, the pressure is going to be on the leading few groups. And how many times have we seen it that someone has come from behind? So, I'm no longer saying that I haven't got a chance, but it's going to take a good round of golf tomorrow."
How good? Aiken will be starting the day eight shots back, so he'll need some help to get the leaders to come back to him.
Louis Oosthuizen wishes he could borrow a few strokes from his seven-shot victory at the Open Championship in 2010.
He'll start the day an intimidating nine shots behind leader Adam Scott, so his game plan will be about making as many birdies as possible. And hoping for help.
"I need the wind to really blow out tomorrow to get the leaders to go backwards," he said after his round. "That's the only way. If the weather stays like this it's going to be really tough to catch them."
If anyone can get hot, Oosthuizen can. He has back-to-back 68s at Lytham. And if he shoots an even lower score Sunday and luck works in his favor, he could find himself with an unlikely second Claret Jug when all is said and done.
Like Louis Oosthuizen, Bubba Watson is going to need to go low Sunday. He's also nine shots behind leader Adam Scott. And like Oosthuizen, he's exactly the type of player who can post an early low round for the leaders to sweat over.
Bubba had his score to five under par at one point during the third round. He birdied three of his first four holes on the back nine before imploding with a bogey and double bogey on 14 and 15, respectively, to fall further behind the leaders.
"Yesterday it looked like I was going to miss the cut as bad as I was playing," Bubba said in his post-round presser. "To get back to under par, two‑under for the tournament—I still have to shoot a low round tomorrow, but it can be done."
I think we'll see Bubba's pink driver a lot in the final round as he goes for all or nothing.
All quotes obtained through ASAP Sports.