British Open Heads for Furious Finish With Stars Tight at the Top

SANDWICH, England — Collin Morikawa and Jordan Spieth had much in common as the third round of the British Open ended on Saturday in the sort of gentle breezes and golden, early evening light more associated with Augusta National than the English seaside.

Morikawa and Spieth are precocious and thoughtful American golf stars in their 20s who have proved that they can win a major championship. Both are still in hot pursuit of Louis Oosthuizen, the mild-mannered South African who remains in the lead but hardly in charge of this major with just one round to play at Royal St. George’s.

Oosthuizen is 12 under par. Morikawa, who was paired with him on Saturday, is one shot back at 11 under. Spieth is in third at nine under.

But though Morikawa and Spieth are in similar positions, they finished their rounds in very different moods.

While Spieth bogeyed the final two holes, missing a two-foot putt on the 18th, Morikawa remained unflappable down the stretch after a shaky start, repeatedly putting himself in promising places with his glittering iron play.

While Spieth marched off after his 69, declining to speak with gathered reporters, Morikawa patiently and methodically made his appointed rounds after his 68. Tent by tent, he talked with the Open’s primary broadcasters and then, arms folded, walked over to the fence where, in this pandemic, the rest of the news media is kept at long microphone’s length.

“Sometimes you just need to find that momentum,” he said of his down-and-up afternoon. “Hopefully you find it on the first hole, but sometimes it takes a few holes, and you’ve really just got to dig deep and just fight through it.”

As usual, the 24-year-old Morikawa spoke like a veteran, but he remains a newcomer at the British Open and has a chance to become the first man to win this tournament in his first appearance since the American Ben Curtis won at Royal St. George’s in 2003.

After playing with Oosthuizen for the first time on Saturday, Morikawa will be back in the final pairing with him on Sunday with the claret jug at stake.

Does Morikawa see it as a head-to-head duel?

“This course can produce low scoring,” he said. “We’ve seen it already. So I wouldn’t count anyone out. I am not going to look at it as a head-to-head. I want to go out and try to birdie as many holes as possible and see what happens. I can only control myself. You know, everyone says that, but that’s the truth. Hopefully, I’ll just do my best and play really well.”

Other high-quality players remain within striking distance. Jon Rahm, the bearded Spaniard who won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last month, is five shots off the lead at seven under and has long had an affinity for links golf. Corey Conners of Canada and Scottie Scheffler of the United States are tied for fourth at eight under.

But Oosthuizen and Morikawa will again be side by side on Sunday. Both are aiming for their second major championship, and Oosthuizen, 38, has been aiming for quite a bit longer.

Morikawa won the P.G.A. Championship in 2020, little more than a year after finishing his collegiate career at the University of California, Berkeley.

Oosthuizen won the British Open in 2010 at St. Andrews, the celebrated Scottish course that defines links golf for many. Oosthuizen, who had missed the cut in seven of his first eight majors and was ranked 54th in the world, took a commanding five-shot lead in the second round and surprisingly held firm to win by seven strokes.

It was a stunning performance, and he has remained one of the world’s finest and smoothest golfers, finishing as runner-up six times in major championships. Now he is back in close range after finishing in a tie for second at this year’s P.G.A. Championship and second at this year’s U.S. Open.

The mental hurdle remains, and one has to wonder if it is a mental block at this stage.

“You know, finishing second isn’t great, so I will play my heart out tomorrow,” Oosthuizen said. “I think all of us are just human to think of lifting the trophy, and that’s going to be in your mind. But I think you just need to know it and how to handle it. Once we get on the golf course, it’s all golf. You need to believe that you can lift the trophy as well.”

He played with considerable resolve on Saturday, starting the round with a two-shot lead over Morikawa and maintaining at least a share of it throughout the round despite Spieth’s early gains.

Oosthuizen was at 13 under after 10 holes but then bogeyed the par-3 11th and the par-4 13th and could only come away with a par on the par-5 14th, which felt like another dropped shot considering how vulnerable the 14th had been to birdies throughout the round.

He was at that point in a three-way tie for the lead with Spieth and Morikawa at 11 under par and appeared to be headed for more trouble when he hit an approach shot on 15 into the rough with a 5-iron. But he was able to recover and make a 15-foot putt to save par and then went on to birdie the par-3 16th and finish the round in more convincing fashion.

Oosthuizen said he should have hit a 6-iron instead of a 5-iron on 15.

“It was the wrong club,” Oosthuizen said. “I hate making wrong decisions. I don’t mind hitting bad shots, but wrong decisions are something I have control over. I was a bit upset there but got myself quickly together and made a great up-and-down.”

Spieth did plenty of quality scrambling as well on Saturday as he played with Dylan Frittelli, a South African who was once Spieth’s teammate at the University of Texas.

Spieth repeatedly improvised solutions out of deep rough and awkward stances. He had great rhythm early in the round as well as a hot putter, making birdies on 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10 to get to 12 under before falling back, closing his eyes in anguish after failing to hole his short par putt on 18.

The bright side is that he is back in contention at the British Open, where he won in more familiar British Open weather — rain and gusting winds — at Royal Birkdale in 2017.

That was Spieth’s third major championship, and after an extended slump, he has reworked his swing and regained confidence at age 27.

On Sunday, with more sunshine in the forecast, the pressure will rise again.

Morikawa was asked if it would be a matter of whose nerve cracked first.

“I would just say it’s who is ready for the moment,” he said. “This is an opportunity for me to go out and hopefully make a great score and play really great golf in a major championship, a major I’ve never played in, so that’s what’s exciting.”

Oosthuizen has the most experience of the top three on the leaderboard but also the most scar tissue.

“He’s been through it plenty of times,” Morikawa said of final-round pressure. “I have been through it, I believe myself, enough. So it’s not who cracks. It’s who is going to take this opportunity.”