MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Robert Karlsson shot a 2-under 68 Saturday to remain atop the leaderboard through three rounds at the St. Jude Classic.
Karlsson looked ready to run away from the field, leading by as much as five strokes on the back nine. But the Swede closed with his only bogeys of the day on the final two holes, dropping to 11 under and one stroke ahead of Harrison Frazar.
Frazar said he thought Karlsson was in total control of the tournament so he focused only on playing. He got hot and birdied three of his final four holes to finish with a 64 that got him to 10 under. That included rolling in a 42-footer for birdie on No. 18.
John Merrick (67) is third, followed by Retief Goosen, who turned in the best 18-hole score this week at TPC Southwind before being matched by Frazar. Fredrik Jacobson (68) and Keegan Bradley (70) are tied for fifth.
The 41-year-old Karlsson is in his first full year on the PGA Tour after earning an exemption by finishing in the top 125 on the money list with 11 events in 2010. That included a second-place finish here a year ago, when he lost a four-hole playoff to Lee Westwood in his best showing yet on the tour.
He is trying to become the seventh first-time winner on tour this year and the first player to win his first title in Memphis since Dicky Pride in 1994.
But Karlsson is no stranger to closing out tournaments. He has won 11 times on the European Tour and has yet shoot over par on this course in seven rounds.
“Robert looks like he’s not going to fall back,” Goosen said. “Playing really solid. Need to get another round like this in tomorrow to get a chance to catch him.”
Of course, Goosen made his remarks before Karlsson’s final two holes.
Karlsson was leading by four until he bogeyed No. 17 after sticking his approach into a greenside bunker. He blasted out to 14 feet and just missed the par putt. Frazar finished up on 18 with his big birdie putt, and Karlsson’s second shot on the final hole landed well right of the green.
With water on the other side, Karlsson’s chip bounced once and stopped in the longer grass short of the green. Trying to save par, he came up 2 feet short and settled for a bogey that trimmed his lead to a mere stroke.
The TPC Southwind has been playing fairly tough for everyone but Karlsson, with the Champion Bermuda greens baked enough from temperatures in the mid-90s to make them almost crusty.
The 6-foot-5 Karlsson posted pars on his first two holes and put distance between himself and playing partners Colt Knost and Bradley almost immediately.
Merrick gave chase with three straight birdies, his third moving him to 8 under and just a stroke behind Karlsson. That was the closest anyone else got until the end of the round.
Karlsson got his first birdie with a 3-footer on the par-5 No. 3 and birdied No. 4 to push his lead back to three at 11 under. He rolled in a 35-footer for birdie on the par-4 No. 6 for a four-stroke lead that was the biggest this week until Merrick bogeyed No. 7 to make it five.
With the lead, Karlsson just methodically worked his way around the course. He two-putted from 41 feet on No. 10, knocking down a 6-footer for par. He two-putted from 36 feet on the par-3 No. 14.
Karlsson managed to birdie even when he missed a couple fairways. He needed a drop after a ruling from an official when his tee shot on No. 15 landed near a drain right of the fairway 111 yards from the pin. Karlsson stuck his shot within 7 feet and rolled in the putt to reach 13 under.
Frazar had seven birdies with a lone bogey. He was rolling at the end of his day, sinking a 13-foot birdie on No. 15, a 6-footer on No. 16 and his long one on 18. He is seeking his first tour win as well.
DIVOTS: If Karlsson wins, he would become the first player since Ryuji Imada at the AT&T Classic to lose in a playoff, then win the same event the next year, which he did in 2007 and 2008. Phil Mickelson also finished second in a playoff at the Northern Trust Open in 2007 and won that event in 2008. … After 83 players made the 36-hole cut, the field was cut again Saturday to the low 70 and ties, leaving 11 out of Sunday’s final round.