When the dust clears, Retief Goosen still leads at Riviera

Retief Goosen has a two-shot edge after a wild day at Riviera

Saturday wasn't only moving day at the Northern Trust Open — it was also theater of the Sergio absurd.

The golf gods came out in third-round force to turn Riviera Country Club into an obstacle course.

Justin Thomas, a 21-year-old upstart seemingly poised to win his first tournament, started his day by hooking his opening tee shot out of bounds. He then hit a concession tent on his way to triple-bogey at the par-three sixth.

Ryan Moore nearly holed out for double eagle at the par-four 10th hole and was "rewarded" for it with a lousy par.

He got revenge by hitting the flagstick at the par-three 16th and making birdie.

Sergio Garcia might have been the first golfer in history to hit three-iron out of the greenside bunker on No. 10.

It was a terrible play for that hole, but the sorry truth was, he was playing the par-four 13th hole at the time.

The final grouping of Retief Goosen, Graham DeLaet and Moore held up their own shots to watch Garcia whack a miracle shot through two eucalyptus trees on his way to one of the greatest saving pars ever witnessed.

At the end of all this crisscross madness, atop the leaderboard stood a 46-year South African coming off back surgery, who thought his best days were behind him.

It was one thing for Goosen to be the 36-hole leader, quite another for him to hold the third-round lead on the tricky contours of Riviera.

Goosen seemed on the verge of collapse when he produced four back-side bogeys before he missed the green with his tee shot at the par-three 16th.

He answered, though, by chipping in for a birdie, then making a two-putt birdie on No. 17. He finished with a two-under-par 69 on his way to a chance to win his first tournament since 2009.

Goosen enters Sunday with the 54-hole lead at eight-under 205, two shots better than DeLaet.

Goosen is a two-time U.S. Open champion but, as he said all week, that seems like a lifetime ago.

"I have the experience," he said, adding, "but it's been, you know, quite a long time ago now."

Goosen's last close-out on the big stage was his 2004 U.S. Open win at Shinnecock Hills.

He has, in the ensuing years, faded into his golfing twilight years. He thought his career might have been over, one way or another, 2 1/2 years ago, when he had surgery to alleviate his back pain.

Goosen said if the surgery had not worked, he probably would have settled into a sedentary life of "sitting on a beach with a glass of wine."

The surgery worked, though, and now Goosen hopes he can turn back the clock 10 years.

He knows opportunities like Sunday might not come along again.

Riviera, which hosted the U.S. Open in 1948, is playing like a major championship track this week. Goosen is trying to coax the muscle-memory magic he used to procure his major wins of 2001 in 2004.

"This will feel like a U.S. Open, a third U.S. Open for me winning this week," he said. "I'm going to give it my all tomorrow."

Goosen is nicknamed "The Iceman" because of his placid, almost robotic, playing style.

Inside, though, his stomach churns like a washer on spin cycle. Sunday's mission will be to ward off the demons that tend to pop up at times like these.

"Try and let my mind not wander too much to the leaderboards or what's going on behind," Goosen said.

There are plenty of reason to keep his eyes fixed ahead. The leaderboard is stacked with players who could take him down.

Including Goosen, there are five players at four-under or better who have won a total of 10 major championships.

And that list doesn't include Garcia, one of four players at five-under 208 who lurk three shots behind the leader. Garcia's circus par at the par-four 13th allowed him to stay in Sunday contention.

Also at five-under are Sang-Moon Bae, who tied for Saturday's best round at five-under 66, along with Carlos Ortiz and J.B. Holmes.

Bundled at four-under 209 are eight players who could challenge Goosen.

The list includes four former major champions — Vijay Singh, Angel Cabrera, Jim Furyk and Bubba Watson.

Singh, who turns 52 on Sunday, is trying to become the second-oldest player to win a PGA Tour event. Sam Snead was 52 months, 10 months and eight days when he won the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open.

Watson has complained all week about how poorly he has struck the ball, yet finds himself only four shots back with a decent chance to defend his Northern Trust title.

Watson is hoping the Sunday rain that has been predicted will hold off until he's wrapped up his final 18.

"I'm not known as a great player in the rain," Watson said.

Also at four under are the entirely capable Dustin Johnson, who shot four-under 67 on Saturday, and young star Jordan Spieth.

Moore came within an inch at No. 10 from a hole in one on a par four, which would have put him at seven under for the day. Instead, he settled for par, but remains in the chase at four under.

Everyone Sunday will start out chasing Goosen, who, for a few more hours, will try to beat back time.

"I wish I was 10 years younger," Goosen said. "But, you know, I feel like I can swing the club again. I just need to control my nerves a little bit."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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