AVONDALE, La. – If Sueng-Yul Noh can hold on to the lead in the Zurich Classic, he'll do it in front of fans who can appreciate how much bigger Noh's mission is than simply winning his first PGA Tour event.
Wearing yellow and black ribbons on his hat to honor victims of the April 16 South Korean ferry accident, Noh used a string of birdies late in his round Saturday to surge two strokes ahead of Keegan Bradley atop the leaderboard.
It is Noh's first career lead through three rounds on the tour, and comes in a city where sports – particularly the success of the NFL's Saints – became an uplifting force after Hurricane Katrina.
Noh finds himself representing – and captivating – a nation mourning the more than 300 dead or missing – many of them students – from the sinking of a ferry in the waters off his home country.
''Hopefully, I'll make all the Korean people happy,'' Noh said. ''It was very sad news for the Korean ship, so hopefully another bogey-free round tomorrow, and hopefully good news for the Koreans.''
Noh is the first player to complete 54 holes at the TPC Louisiana without a bogey. He shot a 7-under 65 to reach 18-under 198. No player has completed all four rounds on the course at better than 20 under, the score Billy Horschel posted last year, when he became the sixth player in the last nine years to secure his maiden PGA Tour triumph in New Orleans.
Noh will try to continue the trend when he tees off in the same group as Bradley, who is no stranger to winning. His three career tour victories include a major in the 2011 PGA Championship.
Bradley said he doubted that he would intimidate Noh, but added, ''It is definitely hard getting your first win.''
Bradley began the day tied for seventh at 9 under. He pulled into a tie with Noh for first on No. 15 with his seventh birdie of the day.
Then, Noh, who was tied for third at 11 under after two rounds, made birdie putts of 13 feet on 14 and 10 feet on 15 before hitting a 112-yard approach shot to a foot for another birdie on 16, bringing him to 18 under.
Bradley also shot 65, making eight birdies. He also made one bogey on the par-3 ninth hole, when his ball landed left of the green, rolled down a bulkhead lined with cypress planks and into a water hazard from which alligators have been making routine appearances this week. It didn't faze him, though.
''I'm most proud this week of where I've been mentally on the golf course and how calm I've felt,'' Bradley said. ''I love being in this position, a couple back going into Sunday. I'd like to be a couple in the lead, too, but I love chasing.''
Robert Streb was third, three shots back after a 68. Paul Casey's 64 was the day's best round. He moved up to a tie for seventh with Charley Hoffman at 13 under.
Ben Martin, who had a three-shot lead after two rounds, shot a 73 to drop into a tie for fourth with Jeff Overton and Andrew Svoboda at 14 under. Overton shot 67, and Svoboda 70.
Noh is in his third year on the tour, but finished outside the top 125 on the money list last season, forcing him to play in Web.com Tour Finals events to retain his tour card.
''Very disappointed in the whole season last year,'' Noh said. ''I learned from that time. ... So I'm very ready for tomorrow.''
He had never before been higher on the leaderboard than tied for second through three rounds. That happened once at the 2012 AT&T National, but he shot a 2-over 73 in his final round to finish tied for fourth, his best finish in 77 previous PGA Tour starts.
Martin had raced to the lead with a course-record 10-under 62 in his first round, and his 36-hole score of 129 also was a course record. Teeing off with the final group, his trouble began on the par-5 second hole. He pushed his second shot to the right toward the crowd. As Martin's father, Jim, yelled, ''Fore!'' LSU student Cameron Slane turned his body defensively and felt the ball carom off the back of his head and shoulder.
The ball kicked to the right and into a cluster of long pampas grass. Martin took a drop and wound up with a bogey.
''Thursday's round and today are kind of a 180-degree difference,'' Martin said. ''After Thursday, I wasn't on Cloud 9 and after today I'm not in the dumps. So I've still have a good mindset going into tomorrow.''