SAN DIEGO — Steve Lowery, an unfamiliar face in an unfamiliar place, shot a 66 Saturday to take a one-shot lead after the third round of the Buick Invitational.
Never before has he been the leader going to the final round of a PGA Tour event.
"I'm going to have to make birdies," he said. "These guys aren't going to back up."
And Lowery, a 33-year-old journeyman from Alabama, has plenty of company. Three shots separated second-round leader David Toms from second place Friday, but those same three shots blanketed 10 players after Saturday's round. Toms had an even-par 72 and slipped into a four-way tie for second with Craig Stadler, Ronnie Black and Kirk Triplett.
Also within three shots of Lowery, who stands at 15-under 201, are Hal Sutton and Lennie Clements at 203 and Payne Stewart, Bob Estes and Mark Wurtz at 204.
These contenders figure to be a hungry bunch, at least when it comes to tasting victories. Six of the 10--Lowery, Toms, Triplett, Clements, Estes and Wurtz--have never won a tour event. Stadler is a local who has never won at home. Black has not won in 10 years. Sutton has not won since 1986. Even Stewart has had a bit of a dry spell, winless since the 1991 U.S. Open.
For Toms, the 27-year-old from Louisiana, the day started like he was going to have this tournament in his bag by sunset. He made a 35-foot putt to birdie the first hole and a 15-foot putt to birdie the second. He was at 16 under and no one was an imminent threat. Lowery, playing two groups ahead, also birdied the first two holes, but that got him only to 11 under.
Things began to come undone for Toms on the third hole, when he had a three-putt for a bogey. He was haunted by three-putts before he was finished, four of them, all for bogeys, his first of the tournament.
"It gets you wondering whether you have to hit it dead-center to get it into the hole," he said. "I had three of them lip all the way around the hole and come back looking right at me. Tomorrow, the course owes me. They have to lip in rather than lip out."
Meanwhile, Lowery, Stadler and Black were stalking him. Both Stadler and Black had shares of the lead during the back nine, but Stadler rode a rollercoaster ride out of the lead and Black lost his share with a bogey on the 17th.
Lowery was 14-under as he went to the 13th green and, behind him, Toms was bogeying the 10th and Stadler the 12th. Lowery's second shot on the par-five 13th skipped over a bunker and rolled onto the green toward the pin. The crowd gasped, but it stopped three feet short. He missed the eagle putt, but he had caught Toms for a share of the lead.
"I was glancing at the leaderboard," he admitted, "because my goal was to be leading when I finished today."
Another birdie on the 15th hole got him to 16 under, but he missed the green from the rough next to the par-three 16th hole and settled for a bogey. He finished at 15 under and left it for the last two groups to shoot at him.
Neither Toms nor Black could get the birdie they needed on 18 to tie. Stadler and Triplett birdied the 18th, but those birdies got them to 14-under. Stadler had been firing and falling back for the last nine holes, carding three birdies, three bogeys and three pars.
"My round was fun at the start," Stadler said, "but boring at the end."
Black was perplexed by his 69, which followed rounds of 65 and 68.
"I played better today than the first two days," he said, "and had my worst score."
He would have equaled Friday's 68, and tied for the lead, but for a succession of difficulties on the 17th. His tee shot found the right rough and his second shot carried wide into a downhill lie in deeper rough. He chopped at the ball and barely made the green, leaving him with a bogey.
Lowery, having accomplished his goal of leading after Saturday's round, obviously has a new goal.
"I know I'll be all keyed up," he said, "dealing with nerves, the situation, the golf course. I'll deal with it. Heck, I'd be nervous trying to win a club championship."
He has a lot of company in the same situation with the same feelings.