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AP photo by Marco Garcia / Keith Mitchell follows his drive on the 11th tee during the third round of the Sony Open on Saturday in Honolulu. The Baylor School graduate shot a 63 and was tied for ninth, four shots out of the lead.

HONOLULU — Brendan Steele knows he can play well at the Sony Open whether it's windy or calm, in sunshine or rain. Now he gets another chance to see if he can win.

One year after Steele gave up a late lead at Waialae Country Club and lost in a playoff, he delivered the lowest score of his career Saturday in ideal conditions with a 9-under-par 61 that gave him a two-shot lead going into the final round.

"You hope that you come back and you play well and erase whatever negative memories there are," Steele said. "But all the memories are pretty positive. Playing great here last year was good, and I'm excited for the challenge tomorrow. I know it's going to be really tough. Guys are coming after me. But I'll just do my best and hopefully it will be enough."

If Saturday was any indication, it will be plenty tough — for Steele, who was at 18-under 192 through 54 holes, and anyone else with hopes of winning.

Joaquin Niemann, the runner-up last Sunday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions that started the PGA Tour's two-tournament Hawaii swing, was outside the top 10 when he birdied the par-3 17th and then roasted a 7-wood that sent the ball tumbling onto the green, setting up his 10-foot eagle putt for a 63. Just like that, he was two shots behind.

Kevin Na started the day five shots out of the lead and matched his career low with a 61 to join Niemann at two back.

Overnight rain, coupled with the tropical wind being not even strong enough to make palm trees sway, left the course as vulnerable as it has ever been. There were 10 scores of 64 or better Saturday, when the average score was 66.7, a record for the Sony Open.

Stewart Cink birdied his final hole for a 65 and was three shots behind, tied for fourth with Charley Hoffman (64), Peter Malnati (64), Russell Henley (65) and Chris Kirk (65).

Former Baylor School standout Keith Mitchell, who had a 62 on Friday, took the lead at one point Saturday and was 8 under through 15 holes on his round when his tee shot landed near a cement wall of a house and cost him a penalty drop. A mediocre finish gave Mitchell a 63, which felt even higher being in the same group as Na.

Mitchell was tied for ninth at 14 under. Another former standout for the Red Raiders, Harris English (67), was tied for 39th at nine under. English won a one-hole playoff against Niemann last weekend at Kapalua Resort.

Niemann was back in contention on another island and far from satisfied.

"I thought I could put myself in a better position, and then finishing that way and making eagle on 18 made me really happy and gave me a bit of motivation for tomorrow," Niemann said.

Na had it going so well he thought about a 59 when he stood over a 10-foot birdie putt on the 17th, knowing that would leave him an eagle away from golf's magic number. He had to settle for a 61 — and knew he might need another score like it.

"The golf course is so gettable that somebody can go shoot 8 or 9 under," Na said. "Yeah, I am in a good position but it's what you shoot Sunday. I'm still going to need a low one tomorrow."

Starting times have been moved up by two hours Sunday with hopes of finishing ahead of heavy rain in the forecast.

Steele had a two-shot lead with two holes to play a year ago when he missed a six-foot par putt on the 17th hole, hit a wild hook on his approach to the easy par-5 18th and had to settle for par, and then missed the 10th green with an 80-yard shot in the playoff against Cameron Smith. It was a final hour when everything went wrong.

When he arrived in Hawaii to start the week, he played the back nine at Waialae for a practice round and was reminded of what he let slip away.

"I was remembering some shots, some good and some bad, kind of kicking myself a little bit," said Steele, a 37-year-old Californian in search of his fourth PGA Tour win.

Steele said he typically plays well coming off a break — five weeks, in this case — and the fact he has the 54-hole lead for the second straight year only tells him he can play this course in any weather. The ferocious wind last year finally gave way to rain. This year, there has been plenty of sunshine and only moderate wind.

Nick Taylor, who took a two-shot lead into the third round, was keeping pace until a pair of bogeys on the back nine. He shot a 68 and was still only four shots back.

Such is the nature of this tournament in this kind of weather. It was wide open Saturday, and it's not likely to be any different in the final round.

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