At stake on Sunday is a shot at his third victory at Pebble Beach that would strengthen his grip on No. 1 in the world. Missing will be his sidekick, Wayne Gretzky, puffing on his cigar and keeping it light. The Great One cited a sore back when he withdrew Saturday from the pro-am.
"Sunday you start focusing just a little bit more," Johnson said after a birdie on the 18th hole for a 2-under 70, tying him with Ted Potter Jr. "Probably should have had a little bit more focus today maybe, but I still got it around OK.
“But, yeah, on Sunday we're trying to win the golf tournament... I definitely have a lot of confidence, and I know if I go out and play really well tomorrow, I'm going to have a really good chance to win."
Potter shot a 62 at Monterey Peninsula and left wondering how much better it could have been. Potter, with virtually no one watching his round because the stars were at Pebble, was 11 under with three holes to play, needing only one birdie and two pars for a 59.
He bogeyed the last two holes, which at least was enough to tie for the lead.
"I didn't feel like I hit bad shots coming in there on the last couple, making bogeys there, but I just knew it was going to be tough coming in," said Potter (left).
They were at 14-under 201, and with more wind in the forecast — compared with virtually none earlier in the week — this could have plenty of possibilities.
Johnson is going for his second straight PGA Tour victory having won by eight shots at Kapalua to start the year. He also is virtually assured of being only the fifth player since the world ranking began in 1986 to be No. 1 for an entire year.
Pebble Beach is not yet his personal playground, but Johnson thrives on the course. Even with three bogeys on the back nine that stalled his momentum, the 70 was his ninth consecutive under-par round. He has made 52 birdies in his last nine rounds at Pebble.
"Just made a couple mistakes there on the back nine, made a couple bogeys, just got a little bit out of position," Johnson said. "But all in all, the game's pretty sharp. I feel like it's in really good form going into tomorrow."
Jason Day, coming off a playoff victory at Torrey Pines two weeks ago, had a 69 at Pebble Beach and was two shots behind along with Troy Merritt, who had the lead until four bogeys over his last six holes at Monterey Peninsula led to a 69.
Jon Rahm birdied his last three holes at Spyglass Hill and worked his way back into contention with a 70. He was in a group at 11 under that included 50-year-old Steve Stricker (70) and Patrick Rodgers (69).
Also in the mix was Phil Mickelson, though he made it harder on himself with a three-putt bogey on the 18th at Pebble Beach for a 72. Mickelson had gone 46 consecutive holes without a bogey, though he managed only one birdie Saturday at Pebble Beach.
Jordan Spieth (right, blasting from the right front bunker on the par-3 seventh at Pebble Beach) was seven shots back after a 70 at Pebble Beach.
Rory McIlroy's debut in this tournament was a short one. He hit into the ocean with an iron on the par-5 sixth hole, leading to bogey. He finished with a drive that bounced along the rocks left of the 18th hole, though he took his penalty drop, hit the pin with his third shot and finished with a birdie. No matter. He still managed a 72 and missed the cut by two shots.
Johnson looked as though he might build a big lead with an approach to the par-5 second hole that settled 4 feet from the cup for an eagle, followed by a wedge shot that checked up a foot from the hole on No. 4 and a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 7.
That stretched his lead to three shots at the time. That also was the last birdie he made until the 18th hole. Johnson got out of position into bunkers on the 10th and 12th holes for bogeys, missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the 14th and flew the green on the windy par-3 17th hole, the ball finally stopping on the 18th tee. That led to his third bogey on the back nine, and suddenly he had company.
Walking off the 14th green, the video board showed Potter with his ninth birdie (he also had an eagle) at Monterey Peninsula. He and Johnson will be in the final group Sunday, along with Potter’s amateur partner.
Potter's only PGA Tour victory was at the Greenbrier Classic in 2012. He missed all of 2015 with a severe ankle injury from stepping off a curb, and he worked his way back to the big leagues last year. Now he faces the biggest test — some wind at Pebble Beach and a share of the lead with the No. 1 player in the world.
Gretzky won't be around to see if the father of his two grandsons can win for a third time at Pebble. The 1985 Edmonton Oilers have a celebration Sunday for their vote as the best NHL team in the last 100 years. Gretzky said earlier in the week that 18,000 tickets had already been sold at $99 each.
So perhaps his back was strained by the weight of a prior obligation.