NORTON — Surrounded by major champions on Sunday and paired with a former FedEx Cup champion, Russell Henley is smart enough to understand that of all the names that could be sitting at the top of the Deutsche Bank Championship leaderboard after three rounds, his isn’t the one anyone expected.
Yet it was Henley pushing through in the third round at TPC Boston, working his way into the lead with a midround stretch of brilliance on a day that, at least weather-wise, was nicer and calmer than the forecast. Not as much wind meant that the 64s and 65s we’re used to seeing at the DBC were out there, and with so many players creating a logjam near the top, someone was bound to find one and grab control of the tournament, temporary though that hold might be.
Henley filled the role on Sunday, shooting a 6-under-par 65 to sit at 12 under par through three rounds, one shot clear of Billy Horschel, who birdied his last three holes to cap a 67, good enough to get him into Monday’s final twosome. Henley and Horschel might not have the name recognition of those giving chase, but with one round to go, they’re the ones being chased.
“Nobody is really expecting me to be sitting here right now. And that’s kind of how I like it,” Henley said. “I believe in myself.”
He better, because he’ll have to stave off a strong class of challengers, and possibly Mother Nature. Rain was expected overnight and into Monday, but the final-round tee times have not been altered, with Henley and Horschel scheduled to go off at 1:55 p.m.
Some eyes will be on the final group, but more likely will be on the groups up ahead. Those in hot pursuit include the world’s top-ranked player who has won three of his past four starts, including two majors, the Match Play champion, and the winner of the US Open and Players Championship.
That’s a heavy lineup, led by Rory McIlroy, who shot a bogey-free 64 and is starting to resemble the player who won the Open Championship, Bridgestone Invitational, and PGA Championship in successive starts. McIlroy also has won here, taking the 2012 DBC when he began the final round three shots behind. This time, he was only two back after three rounds.
McIlroy is tied with Chris Kirk, who matched him shot-for-shot with seven birdies in a bogey-free 64 while being paired together. They’ll do it again on Monday in the next-to-last group. Jason Day (69) was also two shots back, with Webb Simpson (68) three behind. Keegan Bradley (69) led the four-player group at 8 under, with Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Jim Furyk, and Martin Kaymer all within six shots of the lead.
This is a golf course where that kind of deficit can be made up, and Henley, despite only one previous appearance in the DBC, knows it.
“Everybody is so good at this level, and it’s so hard to compete and beat these guys. Rory is having a great year, and a lot of guys are playing well,” Henley said. “I’m not really going to be keeping an eye on anybody. I expect everybody to play really well, and I’m going to try to play well.”
He did that Sunday, making birdie on three of the four par-3 holes, the 16th being the exception. By then he was already in the lead, after a run in which Henley made five birdies in a seven-hole stretch: Nos. 7, 8, 12, 11, and 13. He added one more at the 17th, which ultimately gave him the lead when Horschel came charging over the last three holes.
Both players talked about not being happy with their consistency this season. Both agreed they can be too hard on themselves during a round. But so far, through three days, the body and mind have allowed for some great golf to be played. Others might be surprised, especially looking at the recent form for Henley and Horschel (the most recent top-10 finish for either came in early June).
But they’re not.
“I’m not surprised to be here in second,” said Horschel, who has one tour win, last year in New Orleans. “If people are surprised that I’m in second place, then they must not know what kind of person I am. I’m a guy that’s going to keep working hard, keep grinding, until they tell me the season is over and I can’t play anymore.”
Both Henley and Horschel came here needing to play well or their seasons would be over. Only the top 70 on the points list after the DBC move to the next playoff tournament; Henley got here at No. 62, Horschel No. 82.
They’ve responded to the challenge so far, but a far greater one awaits in the final round. Too many players with way more career wins and experience are ready to pounce if Henley falters. Perhaps he can draw on the experience of winning the Honda Classic in March, when he and McIlroy also began the final round at 12 under and 10 under. Then, it was McIlroy in the lead, and Henley giving chase. But Henley caught McIlroy in regulation, then beat him and two others in a playoff.
Now, Henley is the one trying to preserve the lead.
“I’ve won twice out here. One time I birdied the last five holes. One time I tried to hold it together the last couple holes and won in a playoff. There’s a lot of ways to win,” said Henley, whose first tour win came at the 2013 Sony Open. “I’m trying not to focus on that. I’m just trying to really enjoy it.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.