LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — The ball tumbled over the edge of a pot bunker and appeared to put Adam Scott in the worst spot he had been all day at the British Open.
All he saw was opportunity.
From the wet sand right of the 17th green, Scott had to clear two more pot bunkers to reach the green, with the flag only five paces from the edge. Scott was thinking about birdie, not trying to save par, so he confidently told caddie Steve Williams, "I can handle this." The shot came out pure, trickled by the cup and settled a foot away.
The more relevant questions are one round away.
Can he handle a four-shot lead, knowing this is a year when no lead appears safe? Can he handle a leaderboard with four major champions among the top six names, including Tiger Woods? Can he handle the wind that is expected to finally arrive at Royal Lytham & St. Annes?
"I’m just happy to be in this position," Scott said. "To be honest, I’m really excited about tomorrow."
Scott has never had a better chance to end his long wait for a major — and he owes much of that to his long putter. He stayed in the game early with two key par saves, pulled away with three birdies around the turn and was solid at the end Saturday for a 2-under 68 and a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell and Brandt Snedeker.
It’s the fourth time in the last nine majors that a player had a four-shot lead with one round to go. Rory McIlroy at the 2011 Masters is the only player who didn’t win. Scott has been so steady all week that he has put himself in position to become only the fourth Open champion with all rounds in the 60s.
"It was all pretty solid stuff, considering the circumstances and how much trouble there is on this golf course," Scott said.
Scott narrowly missed a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole that would have given him a share of the 54-hole Open scoring record. He settled for 11-under 199 and will play in the final group with McDowell, who had a 67 to get into the final group for the second straight time at a major.
Snedeker, who went from a one-shot lead to a six-shot deficit in seven holes, birdied two of his last three holes to salvage a 73.
Right behind them were three major champions, starting with the guy who has won 14 of them. Woods recovered from a sloppy start and was within three shots of the lead on the front nine until Scott pulled away. Woods missed a short par putt on the 15th and didn’t give himself many good looks at birdie on the back nine for a 70, leaving him five shots behind. Woods has never won a major when trailing going into the last round.
Three-time major champion Ernie Els was solid in his round of 68 and was six back, along with former Masters champion Zach Johnson, who had a 66.
Even so, the biggest challenge might be the weather. If the forecast holds true — and there’s been no reason to believe that — the greatest defense of links golf could finally arrive with wind projected to gust up to 25 mph.
"It will be in Adam’s hands tomorrow if the conditions are as straightforward as they have been the last few days," McDowell said. "Throw a bit of wind across this course like perhaps they are forecasting, he will have to go and work a lot harder, and he will have to go win it.
"He’s going to have to go win it anyway, for sure."
McDowell was seven shots behind as he walked up to the 13th green and found three birdies coming in to get into the last group, just as he was at Olympic Club last month in the U.S. Open, where he was one putt away from forcing a playoff.
Snedeker opened this championship by playing 40 holes without a bogey, and then he couldn’t buy a par. He had to blast backward out of a bunker, chunked a pitch shot from the fairway, missed short putts and was reeling.
Snedeker rolled in a birdie on the 16th and stretched out his arms in mock wonder, and then finished with a birdie that could bode well for Sunday.
"It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to find out if you have some guts or don’t," he said. "I could have packed up and gone home today, but I didn’t."
Scott was becoming a forgotten star until he switched to the long putter in February of last year, and it has been the biggest reason for the turnaround — his runner-up at the Masters last year, winning his first World Golf Championship at Firestone, and now on the cusp of his first major.
Showing nerves on the opening tee, he hit into a bunker and played a beautiful shot from the back of the wet sand to 8 feet, holing the putt for par. Scott made another par putt from the same distance on the third hole. And in the middle of his run of birdies — including a 30-foot putt on the eighth — he escaped with par on the 10th hole by making one from 18 feet.
"To make a nice putt like that on the first and make par is obviously very settling," Scott said. "And then to do the same thing on 3, that’s been a hole that I haven’t parred this week. From there on, I was very settled into the round and started hitting fairways and greens."
He played it safe on the back nine, giving himself a few good looks, but mostly making sure he didn’t get into position for big numbers.
"That’s what I felt I needed to do," Scott said. "I didn’t need to take any risks out there."
The only drama left at the end of the round was the size of Scott’s lead and whether Woods could get into the final group for another reunion with Williams, the caddie he fired last summer in a split that remains acrimonious.
McDowell took care of that with a late surge, starting with birdies on the 13th and 14th holes, and a 15-foot birdie putt on the 17th.
"I kind of felt the tournament perhaps slipping away from me a little bit and really had to dig deep for some patience," McDowell said. "From about the 14th tee onwards, it’s probably about as good as I’ve swung the club all week."
Snedeker’s bogey-free streak — the longest to start a major championship since at least 1995 — ended with a three-putt from just short of the fifth green, and it spiraled from there. With his ball a foot away from a 4-foot bunker wall, he played back toward the fairway and hit a superb pitch from 40 yards to escape with bogey on the sixth. After that, nothing went his way until the end of the round.
He will be in the penultimate group with Woods, who has rallied to win from five shots behind — but never in a major. It probably would help for the wind to arrive, although Woods is skeptical about the forecast. Perhaps his best chance is for Scott to struggle with his nerves while going for his first major.
"He’s been out here a long time," said Woods, who once shared a coach (Butch Harmon) with Scott. "And he’s won a Players Championship. I don’t think he’s really done probably as well as he’d like to in major championships. But I think that he’s maturing in his game, and I think over the last year or so he’s really improved his game."
Scott turned pro a dozen years ago and was billed as the young Australian who swung the club like Woods. He’s poised to become the first Aussie since Greg Norman in 1993 to get his name on the claret jug.
But this has been a tough year for 54-hole leaders. Five players have rallied from deficits of at least six shots to win, a peculiar trend that Snedeker started at Torrey Pines in January.
"A four-shot lead doesn’t seem to be very much this year on any golf tournament that I’ve watched," Scott said. "That doesn’t mean a lot. The good part is if I play a solid round of golf tomorrow, it will be very hard for the others to beat me, and that’s all I’m thinking about."
It’s best that he not think about how his fellow Aussies have fared. Scott is the fourth Australian to have a 54-hole lead in a major dating to the 2007 Masters. None of the other tree — Stuart Appleby, Aaron Baddeley and Norman — left with the trophy.