Asked what the 63 meant to him, Thomas replied, “It means I have a lot better chance to win the tournament than I did when the day started.”
Thomas, 24, a three-time PGA Tour winner this season, started Saturday five strokes off the seven-under lead, held jointly by Tommy Fleetwood, Brian Harman, Paul Casey and Brooks Koepka.
With his birdie-eagle finish, Thomas ended up in a tie for second at 11 under, one stroke behind Harman. Fleetwood, 26, and Koepka, 27, shared second place with Thomas.
Fleetwood, an Englishman, looked as if he might challenge Rory McIlroy’s 54-hole tournament record of 14 under from 2011 when he made his fifth birdie (against no bogeys) to get to 12 under with three holes to play. But the long-hitting Fleetwood made a sloppy bogey at the 18th for a 68.
Harman, 30, who won his second career tour title in May at the Wells Fargo Championship, posted a 67 on a course that was softened by an overnight rainstorm. In Sunday’s final round, he and the 15 other top players will be looking for their first major championship.
“I’m proud of the way I hung in there today,” said Harman, who, on the third hole, recorded his only bogey, then bounced back with a birdie, his second of six, on the fourth.
Fleetwood said he was proud to walk off the 18th with a bogey. His third shot came to rest woefully short, and his fourth went over the green. He described his fifth shot, which came to rest 3 feet from the hole, as his finest of the day.
“Three days down, and so far, so good,” Fleetwood said, adding: “I was very good staying in the present. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do when you feel like you can’t do anything wrong. I felt like I was swinging great, and I was calm.”
Among those Thomas leapfrogged on Saturday was his fellow American Patrick Reed, the Ryder Cup star who had the second-lowest score of the day, a 65 that put him at eight under for the tournament.
Reed acknowledged that he had been pressing in the majors. His wife, Justine, had an idea she thought might change his fortunes. She encouraged him to play Saturday’s round in the blue pants that he wore during his rousing Ryder Cup victory against McIlroy in the Sunday singles last fall.
“Justine told me, ‘These are the Rory pants,’” Reed said with a smile.
Thomas wore bubble-gum-pink pants, but his performance upstaged them. This is how well he played: He had six 3s on his scorecard on the final seven holes (which play to a par of 28), including four in a row.
The highlight of Thomas’s round was a birdie putt on No. 5. Standing perpendicular to the hole, Thomas aimed toward the fringe of the green and watched as the ball made a 90-degree turn and rolled in.
“That’s how dialed up he was,” said Jonathan Randolph, who played with Thomas and shot a 73. “When stuff like that starts going in, you might as well make it a special day.”
At 5 feet 10 and 145 pounds, Thomas is built like a 3-iron. He is perhaps, pound for pound, the longest hitter in men’s golf, as he demonstrated on the par-5 18th by taking his 3-wood and crushing a shot that traveled 299 yards and came to a rest six feet from the pin.
Thomas waited as Randolph hit his third, fourth and fifth shots before taking aim at his history-making 63.
Thomas’s ball rolled into the heart of the cup.
During the long walk from the 18th green to the scoring area, Thomas and Randolph talked about the coming Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., where they both are scheduled to compete. Randolph, 28, said he had no idea what Thomas had shot until he asked him in the scoring room. He said that Thomas replied, “a 63, I think.”
When Randolph realized he had been a witness to history, he panicked. The scorecard he used to tally Thomas’s numbers did not fit into his back pants pocket, so he had ripped off the bottom edge, leaving it torn and jagged.
It most definitely was not ready for the World Golf Hall of Fame, he said.
“I felt pretty guilty,” Randolph said, adding, “I told him I could redo it if they needed me to.”