After three rounds, Bubba Watson is the brightest star at Riviera

Los Angeles has its distractions for someone with laser focus. That would not be Bubba Watson, who moves, thinks and talks in kinetic bursts.

In that way, all the bright lights and shiny objects might be Watson's paradise, and he wasn't going to let being the third-round leader of the Northern Trust Open keep him from his appointed (entertainment) rounds.

Only a few minutes after shooting a four-under-par 67 at Riviera Country Club on Saturday to take a one-stroke advantage over three players, Watson was antsy to get out the door and on the way to Staples Center for the Clippers' glamorous matchup against the Golden State Warriors.

He apparently is traffic-phobic. He finished his round at 3 p.m. and the game was starting at 5:30. He was giving himself 2 1/2 hours to go 17 miles.

"Y'all are holding me up from getting there," Watson said in a brief interview in the clubhouse after he declined to attend a session in the media center.

"I'm friends with a lot of the guys, friends with Steve Ballmer. I don't know if you know him — he's the owner of the Clippers. So for me it's a win-win."

Maybe. His first victory was apparently scoring tickets to the game; that second win might be considerably harder to come by.

On the leaderboard at Riviera are as many stars as those who were sitting courtside at Staples on Saturday night. Not many majors have the potential for more high-level drama.

Watson, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott. All are ranked among the top 20 in the world golf rankings. All are separated by one or two shots heading into what figures to be a fascinating final round on a course playing just forgiving enough to entice the contenders into possibly disastrous mistakes.

Watson, at 12 under, leads by one over Johnson, who shot 68 on Saturday, Jason Kokrak (70) and Chez Reavie (69). Two behind are McIlroy (67), Scott (67), K.J. Choi (67), UCLA alum Kevin Chappell (66), and Marc Leishman (68).

Numerous are the story lines. Watson is trying to win for the second time at Riviera (his first win was in 2014), as is Scott (2005). McIlroy could prevail in his first-ever appearance and move from No. 3 to No. 2 in the world. Johnson is trying to erase two hard-luck finishes here the last two years. A Choi triumph would be his ninth on tour and the second straight at Riviera for a South Korean-born player.

"If you need more incentive to win a golf tournament, then maybe winning at a place like this is something that drives everyone, drives the top guys," Scott said.

"You've covered all the stories. … Everyone has something we are playing for other than just to win. We all know how big a deal it would be to win here at Riviera."

For the leaders, Riviera has played just soft enough to give them a chance at good scores, but nobody's gone crazy-low at the top. That could change Sunday.

"Somebody's going to shoot low," Johnson said. "There's so many great players that are up on the leaderboard that are within a couple shots of the lead. I would guess 17 under, 16 under would get it done."

Said Scott: "Not everyone's going to fade away. It's not the brutal hard and fast stuff where your slight miss is really punished and you can't get up-and-down. It's possible."

Watson proved that in the third round, keeping his one-shot edge with a spectacular finishing par. The left-hander hooked his second shot on the par-four down the hill and across the cart path to a position near a skybox, where he was allowed to take a drop.

Ninety-six feet from the cup, Watson popped a wedge to 2 1/2 feet, the large crowd around 18 roaring its appreciation.

"To win, there's going to have to be a lot of things go your way," Watson said. "Like getting up-and-down on 18, something crazy like that. A chip-in; you're going to have to do something because it's one bounce one way or the other to win or lose."

For Johnson, if the round comes down to the par-five 17th hole, whatever he does will be noteworthy. At 590 yards and playing as the third-easiest hole this week, No. 17 should be the long-hitting Johnson's doormat.

Yet in the final round last year he bogeyed it with a wedge in his hand for the third shot and fell into a playoff he lost. This year, Johnson doesn't have a birdie on the hole that has given up 103 of them this week.

"I have no idea," Johnson said of why No. 17 has been a nemesis. "Any hole out here, it's easy to miss putts. I think that's just what it is. Just haven't made any putts on that hole."

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 21, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Bubba is star of stars, so far - Watson takes a one-shot lead, with some of golf's big names right behind." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
64°