AKRON, Ohio — Thomas Pieters of Belgium ended his roller-coaster round with his eighth birdie, a 30-footer that rammed into the back of the cup for a 4-under 66 that gave him a share of the lead with Zach Johnson in the Bridgestone Invitational.
Pieters, who led by as many as three shots with his explosive start Saturday, ran into trouble off the tee and kept dropping shots on the back nine. Moments after Johnson holed a 10-foot birdie on the 18th for a 65 to take the lead, Pieters joined him with his long putt.
Pieters made only three pars over his last 11 holes, yet he still has his best chance to win in America.
Johnson, who hasn’t won since he captured his second major at St. Andrews two years ago, gave up some 30 yards to Rory McIlroy throughout their round. But on a Firestone course on which he has never seriously contended, he was efficient as ever.
They were at 9-under 201, and they had plenty of company.
One shot behind was Scott Hend of Australia, who got into his first Bridgestone Invitational on a loophole and posted a 63 even with two three-putt bogeys. The World Golf Championship set aside one spot for the winner of a designated event on the Asian Tour. When that tournament never came together, organizers agreed to take the winner of the Order of Merit from the previous year.
Hend is making the most of his chances in his debut at Firestone. After his lone bogey on the par-3 seventh with a three-putt bogey, Hend took only 10 putts over the final 11 holes, three of them from 30 feet or longer, one of those for par.
“Just channeling my inner Jordan Spieth,” he said.
Hideki Matsuyama, already with one World Golf Championship he won last fall in Shanghai, had a 67 and was two shots behind.
McIlroy certainly has his long game in order. McIlroy kept pounding away with driver and through three rounds has hit 39 of his 42 drives longer than 300 yards. Getting the wedges dialed in, and making his share of putts, has been holding him back.
Even so, McIlroy managed a 68 and was three shots behind, along with Adam Hadwin and Charley Hoffman, who each shot 67.
“I felt like I could have got a lot more out of it,” McIlroy said. “I think if I would have walked off today with a 65 or a 66, I would have felt that was a fair reflection of how I played. But only three behind going into tomorrow, I can get off to a fast start and try and put a bit of pressure on the guys up ahead of me.”
Spieth, meanwhile, needed to channel his inner Hend. He took bogey on the last two holes for a 71 to slip seven shots behind in his bid to win his third straight tournament going into the PGA Championship next week.
Pieters, who won the NCAA title at Riviera while playing for Illinois, is a three-time winner on the European Tour and showed glimpses of his potential last fall in the Ryder Cup when he won four matches in a rare U.S. victory.
Trailing by two shots against Jimmy Walker to start the third round, he ran off three straight birdies to seize control and looked as though he might run away from the field. But he didn’t hit a fairway after the 10th hole, and it cost him a couple of times.
Johnson twice made bogey from the bunkers, and while he could only watch McIlroy put on a show with his driver, Johnson more than made up for the difference with a handy wedge game and a reliable putter.
Walker, meanwhile, had two double bogeys and shot 41 on the front nine to fall as many as eight shots behind. Two birdies on the back allowed him to salvage a 74. He still was six behind going into Sunday.