SAN FRANCISCO — The PGA of America probably couldn’t have placed the pieces on the leaderboard in more favorable positions had it mapped it out in advance of Sunday’s PGA Championship final round at TPC Harding Park.
The 54-hole leader at 9-under par after a third-round 65, Dustin Johnson, is prone to final-round drama (both good and bad) in major championships.
Behind him is an array of delicious storylines.
At 8-under are Cameron Champ and Scottie Scheffler, two young players each seeking his first major championship.
Leading the three players at 7-under is Brooks Koepka, the two-time defending champion who’s vying for a three-peat.
“I’m playing good, so I like my chances,’’ Koepka said. “When I’ve been in this situation I’ve capitalized.’’
Tied with Koepka are Collin Morikawa, a 23-year-old who a year ago was at Cal-Berkeley, and Paul Casey, a veteran who’s seeking his first major.
At 6-under are Bryson DeChambeau, Tony Finau and Daniel Berger, all trying to win their first major, and Jason Day and Justin Rose, both trying to win their second career major.
“There’s some guys there that haven’t won a major before, so there’s going to be a lot of nerves, a lot of young guys,’’ Rose said. “Listen, we all know the young guys can do it. You can’t hide behind being young out here anymore on Tour. Those guys are going to go out and be hard to beat, but there’s a pretty strong chasing pack.
“It’s a very deep leaderboard and a very bunched leaderboard. I think anything from 4-under par onwards has a chance, and there’s probably 20 guys.’’
Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open winner, is no stranger to being in the mix on a Sunday in a major.
“The last three majors I played — they seem a lifetime ago — I’ve been in the last few groups,’’ Rose said. “You have to keep knocking on the door. If you are knocking on the door, more often than not, you do find that round that you need on a Sunday. That’s when the door opens. You never quite know when that’s going to happen.’’
Casey called the diversity at the top of the leaderboard “really cool.’’
“I’m 43 and playing against guys in their 20s,’’ Casey said. “I relish that challenge. We have Morikawa and Champ and Scottie is up there. Watching guys like Morikawa, phenomenal talents, and I relish the opportunity to go up against them.’’
Johnson, the leader in the clubhouse, has had his share of chances in major championship final rounds, some chances that were met with calamity.
He blew a big 2010 U.S. Open lead at Pebble Beach with an early triple bogey in his final round that ended in 82. He threw away a PGA Championship at Whistling Straits when he was penalized for grounding his club in a sand trap. He three-putted from 12 feet on the 72nd hole to lose the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay to Jordan Spieth.
Even in the one major championship he won, Johnson faced controversy when his ball moved on a green in the final round and the USGA contemplated penalizing him during the round but never alerted him that it was under review.
“Well, those, I was definitely younger,’’ Johnson said when asked what he’s learned from his experience being in contention at majors. “I have been out here awhile now. I’ve been in contention a lot, and I’ve got it done a lot of times. I definitely have experience in this situation that definitely will help. I’ve been in the hunt a bunch of times in a major. I’ve got one major, so having that experience is definitely going to be beneficial. I look forward to the challenge.’’
This is DeChambeau’s first time in true contention in the final round of a major.
“I’m proud of myself that I’ve been able to change my body, change everything, and give myself a chance to win,’’ he said. “That’s something that I think is difficult to do when somebody goes and changes themselves, there’s usually a little struggle with that.’’
Like Morikawa, DeChambeau is a California native who spent a lot of his young playing Harding Park and other courses in the Bay Area. He shuddered at the thought of winning his first major so close to home.
“To win in my backyard would be something I could only dream of,’’ he said. “I don’t even know what that would mean to me other than more than the world.’’