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Hovland continues hot streak, up 6 with $18 million prize looming

Highlights: Tour Championship, Round 3
Watch the best moments and shots from the third round of action at East Lake for the Tour Championship.

ATLANTA – Closing his eyes, straddling his line, shuffling his feet, Viktor Hovland faced three straight opportunities inside 11 feet late Saturday that could have put away this Tour Championship.

But each putt missed – including a 7-foot try in near-darkness on the 18th green – that gave the rest of the field the slightest bit of hope for a miracle comeback at East Lake.

For inspiration, the chasers need only to look at what happened a year ago at the season finale.

Looking to cap off his breakout year with a season-long title, Scottie Scheffler ran up a six-shot lead heading into the final round. But that massive advantage was gone by the seventh hole. He wound up losing to Rory McIlroy by a shot.

Reflecting on that experience earlier this week, Scheffler recalled that he got impatient early in the round, when he played his first six holes in 3 over: “I remember walking down No. 8 having a talk with myself: This is why you practice. This is why you prepare. Just giving myself a little pump-up speech, and then after that I snapped right back in.”

It still wasn’t enough for Scheffler to avoid matching the largest final-round collapse in PGA Tour history.

Hovland knows the challenge ahead, as well as the tendency to play too conservatively, to try and protect the lead. He couldn’t ever recall leading a tournament by six shots, even dating as far back as junior golf.

“There’s a lot of good, hungry players behind me who can go out and shoot 61,” Hovland said. “So I’ve got to be ready.”

It’ll be a monumental task for any player trying to hunt down Hovland, who is playing the best golf of his ascendant career. Just last week he closed with a final-round 61, which included a scintillating 28 on the back nine, to cruise past world No. 1 Scheffler and steal the BMW title.

Through 54 holes here at the Tour Championship, Hovland is atop both the gross and net leaderboards, shooting 12 under for three rounds to push his three-day total to 20 under. He is six ahead of Xander Schauffele and another shot clear of Collin Morikawa (also 12 under net) and Keegan Bradley.

Few are better equipped to close the gap than Schauffele, who has come from behind to win four of his seven Tour titles. His history at East Lake has also been well-documented: He’s finished in the top 10 in all six career appearances, with an under-par score in 24 of 27 career rounds.

“I know what I need to do,” Schauffele said. “I need to go out and try and put as much pressure on him tomorrow on that front nine as I can and hope for the best.”

Even that might not be enough to hunt down Hovland, who ranks second in the field this week in strokes gained: tee to green, has failed to convert only two scrambling opportunities and has needed no more than 30 putts in a round.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played this well before,” Hovland said, “with this stretch, just putting all the short game and stuff together.”

A FedExCup title would be a fitting way for Hovland to end the season, after a sensational year during which he won at a pair of U.S. Open-caliber venues (Muirfield Village and Olympia Fields) and placed inside the top 20 in all four majors.

If he goes on to win Sunday, Hovland will have earned $21.6 million in the last two weeks.

“He’s just playing unbelievable golf,” Schauffele said. “He’s been working really hard. I saw him working hard through the playoffs there. I was out late, and he was one of the guys I always saw until dark as well. So, no surprise.”