McDowell made a late surge as he finished the rain-delayed third round Sunday morning, building a three-shot lead with a tap-in birdie on the island-green 17th. But he was shocked to see his approach on the 18th bounce onto the green, take a hard turn to the left and roll all way into the water. He wound up with a double bogey for a 68.
Even so, that gave him a one-shot lead over K.J. Choi and David Toms going into the final round.
It set up what could be a dynamic finish, with so many top players on a course where anything can happen at any minute. That much was evident at the end of the third round.
Nick Watney lost the lead by playing a three-hole stretch in 4 over.
McDowell hit a beautiful pitch on the 16th to set up a birdie and the outright lead. Then came a wedge on the 17th that spun down the slope to within 2 feet for birdie.
He was in the right rough on the 18th, a clear look at the green that features a severe slope to the left on the front part. McDowell said he would have taken anything short or to the right, but with his draw, it headed toward the flag below the teardrop mounds, bounced onto the green with speed and caught the slope.
It looked good, but only for a second.
The ball rolled to the left, further and further away, gathering speed. Then it caught another small slope and McDowell’s jaw dropped when he saw the ball tumble over the wooden frame of the green and into the water.
“Wow!” he said to himself.
He dropped on the fringe, but left his long par putt about 6 feet short and missed that one for double bogey.
McDowell was at 12-under 204 and will play in the final threesome with Choi (67) and Toms (71). McDowell had played mistake-free, and the double bogey brought several players back into the hunt for the final 18 holes Sunday afternoon.
Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, a two-time winner on the TPC Sawgrass, avoided the calamity that hit so many others down the stretch for a 70 that put him in the group at 9-under 207 with Luke Donald (71), Jason Dufner (68), Aaron Baddeley (70), Steve Stricker (71) and Watney, who had to settle for a 72.
Donald, who can go to No. 1 in the world with a win Sunday, bogeyed the last two holes.
It was one of several missed chances on a gorgeous morning at Sawgrass.
Watney made the turn in 32 to get to 13 under and was holding steady until he pulled his tee shot so badly on the 14th that it went into the water and he had to play again from the tee. He wound up with a double bogey to fall one shot behind, then kept sliding. He came up well short of the 15th green and made bogey, then chipped through the green and into the water on the par-5 16th for bogey.
Toms, the 36-hole leader, was tied for the lead after Watney’s double bogey. But he failed to birdie the 16th, then put his tee shot on the 17th into a bunker and took two shots to reach the green for bogey.
Stricker was one shot out of the lead when he missed four putts inside 8 feet – three for birdie, one for par.
His tee shot on the 17th was perfect for the traditional Sunday hole location, only this was Sunday morning – still the third round, when the pin is in a bowl at the bottom left of the green, not top right.
That left Stricker a 55-foot putt around a ridge and down the slope, and he took bogey. From the fairway on the 18th, he badly pulled his shot to the left and into the water and did well to save bogey.