Early in the round — long before two storm delays of a little more than an hour each at Quail Hollow Club— Dahmen hit a pitch into a bunker to make double bogey on the par-4 third hole and blasted a chip 25 feet by the hole for a bogey on the fifth. Suddenly he was four shots behind.
"I think, in the past, I probably would have went on to 77 or 80," said Dahmen, the happy-go-lucky cancer survivor.
Dahmen recovered with an eagle-birdie-bogey-birdie stretch around the turn, held his breath when his shot on the 16th nearly went in the water and shot 1-under 70 for a share of the lead with Max Homa and Jason Dufner.
Dahmen only felt the nerves when he made his double bogey. Homa, who now gets his turn in the final group for the first time, felt them all day until he put a club in his hand. He handled the bustling crowd — he played with McIlroy — to seize the lead for most of the day until he suffered a tough bogey from behind a tree on the 18th for a 70.
Dufner (photo) made consecutive bogeys during the storm delays, answered with consecutive birdies and joined them at the top with a 71.
They were at 11-under 202.
Pat Perez (photo below) had a bogey-free 66 and was one shot behind. Six players were separated by three shots going into the final round, a group that includes Justin Rose, who bogeyed the 18th hole from a poor tee shot and shot 68.
Dahmen had never been in the top five starting a round on the weekend, and he had a chance to fade quickly when he was 3 over for his round after five holes. But then he answered with a shot into 12 feet on the par-5 seventh for eagle, a wedge to 6 feet for birdie on the next hole and was solid the rest of the way.
"I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous in those opening holes, and I wasn't," Dahmen said. "After I made double, then I got nervous because I didn't want to shoot myself out of this thing. I wanted to keep having fun and keep being in this tournament. Geno, my caddie, did a great job today, just kept it light."
That would be Geno Bonnalie, who two years ago, when McIlroy parted with his caddie, put out a mock application for the job on social media that began by taking credit for guiding Dahmen to a tie for 68th in the Reno-Tahoe Open.
Homa ended 30 holes without a bogey when he missed a 6-footer for par on the 11th hole, and he failed to convert two birdie chances before his bogey at the end. Now it's his turn to play in the final group on Sunday with Dufner.
"All you can ask for is to have a chance," Homa said. "I think I did that today. Obviously, we have a long 18 holes to go on a hard golf course, but I'm proud of the round. I like how I played, I like my chances, and I like where I'm standing after three days."
Dahmen will be in the penultimate group with Perez.
With two players going for their first wins, and Dufner still trying to emerge from a slump, McIlroy liked his position two shots behind. He heard "Happy Birthday" at every turn, made his first birdie as a 30-year-old on the par-5 seventh hole and looked to be ready to make a move when he hit from a loose divot on the 12th fairway to just outside 10 feet.
That's when the second horn sounded to stop play. McIlroy returned and ran his birdie putt 5 feet by the hole, missed the next one and lost ground with a bogey. That was his last mistake. He picked up birdies on the reachable 14th and the par-5 15th and is poised to join Tom Weiskopf as the only three-time winners at Quail Hollow.
Weiskopf won the old Kemper Open three times on this course—or an earlier version of it—before the tournament moved to Washington.
"This golf course really rewards patience and rewards discipline," McIlroy said. "And I feel like I was both of those today."
The top of the leaderboard looked similar to when the round started, except that McIlroy and Perez are a lot closer, and they all have a lot more company.
Paul Casey made 15 pars and still managed to make up five shots on the lead, courtesy of a pair of eagles and on birdie. He was four shots back at 7-under 206, along with Seamus Power (69).
Another shot behind was a group that include Sergio Garcia, who shot 30 on the front nine in the morning on his way to a 65, and Rickie Fowler, who had a 66. Fowler won his first PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow in 2012.