Traffic jam in L.A. -- and it's a good thing

LOS ANGELES -- Anyone who thinks golf has a slow-play problem should try driving in Los Angeles. The traffic here makes a PGA Tour round feel like a five-hour sprint.

Then there's the Northern Trust Open, which through three days is epitomizing its host city in volume, if not speed.

Let's get that traffic copter flying above Riviera Country Club because there's a nine-player pileup on the leaderboard. That's how many contenders are within three strokes of the lead with 18 holes left to play, which leaves this tourney as crowded as the 405 during rush hour.

"It's going to be a bit of a shootout tomorrow," Rory McIlroy said.

As if to only further the L.A. analogy, the 54-hole leader is an eccentric superstar in a city filled with 'em. Bubba Watson is a two-time Masters champion and past winner of this event, though he still receives as many headlines for his social faux pas as for anything he does on the golf course.

So far this week, Watson has hung out with Justin Bieber, who taught Watson's young son, Caleb, how to play the drums. He taped a scene for the television show "Girl Meets World" and later revealed that his lone line earned him a cool $900. After his third round, he was planning to race off to the Warriors-Clippers game at Staples Center -- traffic notwithstanding, of course.

Almost as an afterthought, Watson has posted scores of 66, 68 and 67 to lead by a single stroke entering the final round.

"When you get around the lead, you perk up a little bit," he said. "A little bit of energy comes through you."

There are plenty of other players who must know that feeling right now. Just a stroke behind Watson is the eclectic trio of Dustin Johnson, Jason Kokrak and Chez Reavie. Another stroke behind them is the similarly eclectic fivesome of McIlroy, Adam Scott, K.J. Choi, Marc Leishman and Kevin Chappell. One shot behind them? Hideki Matsuyama and Troy Merritt. Another shot back? Brendan Steele and Sung Kang. Extend the list of contenders to five shots behind Watson, and another five players are still in the mix.

That's potentially a dozen-and-a-half players with a chance to win the title Sunday afternoon, and that relegates Hogan's Alley to golf course gridlock.

It all leads to a few questions that anyone stuck in the slow lane has wondered about: Should I change my strategy? Do I need to become more aggressive? How much should I worry about everyone else, instead of just focusing on my journey?

"There's not really much you can do, apart from try to play a solid round of golf and see where the chips fall at the end of the day," said McIlroy, who posted a third-round 67 in his first U.S. start of the year. "If you shoot the lowest score, then that's great. But I don't think you can look too much at what the other guys are doing. You've just got to go out and set yourself a number, and if you go out and achieve that and it's not quite enough, then someone's just played better than you that day."

That's easy for him to say. McIlroy has 11 career PGA Tour wins before his 27th birthday; one more would give him a number matched in the modern era by only a few guys named Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

A guy such as Reavie might be feeling the nerves a bit more. He owns one career victory at the 2008 Canadian Open and hasn't posted a top-10 in nearly half a decade.

Throw in the fact that he hits the ball much shorter than most of his fellow contenders, and you could understand a new strategy come Sunday. But he insisted instead he'll stick with his previous game plan.

"I've got to play the same way, no matter what," Reavie said. "You've got guys like Bubba and Dustin, they are going to get to more par-5s than I am and have some wedges, so they are going to be able to play a little more aggressive. But then that can also hurt them as well. If they don't hit good shots, you'll pay a price out here if you get the ball above the hole."

Smart decisions. Increased patience. Maybe contending at this tournament is even more like dealing with traffic than it seems.

Then there's the mentality that will be employed by Watson, the eccentric superstar with the lead, who knows winning a title doesn't have to be pretty.

"I don't care if it's an 80," he said of his final-round score. "You know what? I hope everybody ties me, and they all shoot 80. That doesn't matter to me. It's about lifting the trophy."