Recap of the day
Early play: Could anyone spring from the cut line and make a big move up the board? The man who gave it the best shot from the 1-unders was Hideki Matsuyama, who played his first 12 holes in six-under to reach -7. There were more birdie opportunities out there, especially the par-5 16th, but the Japanese star came in with six straight pars and signed for a 6-under 66 to post 7-under, five back from the lead. That was seven shots better than playing partner Brooks Koepka, who swallowed three doubles in a 1-over 73 which closed with a 99-foot birdie hole out from the rough. The 13th group out today (10:10am ET) then took centre stage. Seamus Power made the early noise with a hole-in-one (the third this week!) at No. 3 before Ollie Schniederjans took flight with eagle-3 at 9 and added four more birdies to post the clubhouse target of 10-under via a 7-under 65. When he handed his card, just under 30 minutes before the final group headed out, the man with no hat was solo third, two off the lead. Shortly after, Brandt Snedeker repeated the feat, shooting a 65 of his own for 10-under.
Afternoon wave: With overnight three-shot leaders Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood faltering early, Jon Rahm hit top spot with a birdie-birdie-eagle-par-birdie run from 9-13 but he pulled Rory along with him, the two holding a three-shot lead over the field when McIlroy teed off at 11 at 13-under. Rahm kept on the gas with par breakers at 16 and 17 to post 15-under 201 and wouldn’t be caught. McIlroy eventually finished a shot back, as did Fleetwood, who rallied late with four birdies in his final eight holes to book a spot in the final group alongside Rahm. Fit-again Jason Day came in with a 68 to nudge up to solo fourth.
Notables: -9 Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, -8 Justin Rose, Tony Finau, Bryson DeChambeau, -7 Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, -6 Webb Simpson, -5 Matt Kuchar, -3 Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, -2 Francesco Molinari, Evs Brooks Koepka,
Revised outright betting: 2/1 Rahm, 12/5 McIlroy, 7/2 Fleetwood, 9/1 Day, 25/1 DJ, 40/1 Ancer.
Sunday weather forecast
Some umbrellas went up in the afternoon today and they’ll be needed again tomorrow with rain in the forecast between 10am and 3pm. As on Saturday, the wind is from the north (meaning 17 and 18 are played into it) and it’s set to blow a steady 15mph. The cooler, UK conditions may just help the Euros feel at home.
Leaders after 54 holes
Jon Rahm (64, 201) – Five back at start of play and 25/1 with the bookies, it wasn’t immediately obvious if Rahm would emerge as a title contender or bit-part actor after a modest start. We got our answer on the back nine as he stormed home in 30 with an eagle and four birdies, plonking his tee-shot to 2ft 9in at 17. Gained just over six strokes from Tee-to-Green today and ranks 1st for Approach this week.
Tommy Fleetwood (70, 202) – Fleetwood’s Saturday woes were well documented in the build-up and for a fair chunk of today it felt as if the nightmare could repeat. But Tommy dug deep, hung in with some short-game magic and pulled to within a shot with birdies at 11, 12, 16 and 17. Ranks 1st for SG: Off The Tee although hit only 11 GIRs today.
Rory McIlroy (70, 202) – A poor driving day for Rory, who hit just four fairways although still found 13 greens. A bogey-bogey start could have thrown him off course but was 4-under from that point although seven closing pars meant he couldn’t rein in Rahm. Outside the top 50 for DA but the rest of his stats are very solid. T1 for bogeys this week; he’s made just three.
Jason Day (68, 204) – Well, well, well. He could hardly walk a week or so ago, withdrawing after six holes at Bay Hill, and now he’s fourth going into the final round at Sawgrass. An enigma. Gamers could probably think of some other words. Bogeyed No. 1 for the second day running but all good after that. Seventh for SG: Putting to this point.
Fate of the favorites
Dustin Johnson (69, 206) – Overcoming an early bogey-6 at No. 2, DJ loomed into contention with birdies at 11, 12 and 14 but would probably have liked to have squeezed out a couple more. Missed just three greens but outside the top 30 in SG: Putting and Putts per GIR this week. 69-68-69 so far but five back and probably needs a low one on Sunday.
Rory McIlroy (See above)
Justin Thomas (70, 213) – Playing in the first group out on Moving Day wasn’t in JT’s plans at the start of the week but that was the reality after he made it on the number. When he walked off today, Thomas ranked 1st for birdies with 16. A shame about those 11 bogeys and a double. Better with the irons today but the putter went cold.
Justin Rose (68, 208) – Rose missed the cut at Bay Hill and had to grind to get through to the weekend here. But he’s certainly going in the right direction now (-10 for last 30 holes). Hit just 11 greens (same as Thursday) but putted well.
Tiger Woods (72, 213) – Out in 39, any hopes of a Woods charge vanished quickly although he did balance the books coming home to shoot even par. At least Tiger has more than one way to entertain us these days. The PGA TOUR shared a wonderful exchange with Na at the par-3 17th, via Twitter.
Jon Rahm (64) – “It definitely suits my playing style a little better (playing in March). It’s easier to be aggressive, greens aren’t as firm for the most part. I can hit high shots and just go right at the pin. Still need to be very precise but I think it fits the way I like to play golf a little better. Tomorrow I know there’s going to be somebody who plays early who’s going to post a score so I’m going to have to go ahead and shoot a low number to win this tournament which is what I expect as it’s THE PLAYERS Championship.”
Tommy Fleetwood (70) – “Just kept going. I hit some dreadful shots really, early on. The iron shot into one was a shocker after a perfect drive and the putt was sliding across the hole on that green and I made an absolute hash of the first hole. Poor tee-shot at four, poor shots into six and seven. It was a struggle really. I hit some better shots coming in but it was just a real test of grit and sort of mental strength really today more than anything.”
Rory McIlroy (70) – “I didn’t actually hit too many bad shots on the way out. I got into some tricky positions. The birdie on three definitely sort of settled things down for me and then played some steady golf and then the birdie on seven and the good shot into eight (tap-in birdie). I didn’t adrive it particularly well today which I’m actually going to go and work on the range in a little bit before it gets dark.”
Justin Rose (68) – (Speaking as the final group were playing the 9th) “Today, a totally different wind. The wind blew out of the north and I felt like the course was playing quite tough to start with and I was very happy to turn in 3-under. I felt like if I had a good back nine I could put myself in a nice position going into tomorrow. I feel like the conditions have suddenly got a bit easier out there and there’s some birdies to be had.”
Road to victory at TPC Sawgrass
2018 Webb Simpson – R1: 1st, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
2017 Si Woo Kim – R1: 7th, R2: 16th, R3: 4th
2016 Jason Day – R1: 1st, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
2015 Rickie Fowler – R1: 11th, R2: 3rd, R3: 11th
2014 Martin Kaymer – R1: 1st, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
Notes: Webb Simpson and Jason Day were seven and four shots clear respectively after the third legs of their wire-to-wire wins. Henrik Stenson came from five back to take victory in 2009 but, in the last 20 years, Rickie Fowler is the only winner to have started the final lap outside the top six. Fowler was T11 although a bunched leaderboard meant he was only three off the pace.
Fate of the 54-hole leaders at TPC Sawgrass – where did they finish?
2018 Webb Simpson 1st
2016 Jason Day 1st
2015 Chris Kirk 13th
Notes: On first glance, there’s lots of good news for 54-hole leaders as, in four of the last six years, one of them has prevailed. But we’ve seen some meltdowns too. An 84 from J.B. Holmes, 79s from Alex Cejka and Graeme McDowell. In fact, it’s fairly easy to weave a tale of woe. Stephen Ames was the last 54-hole leader to shoot a closing round in the 60s while the average R4 score from the third-round leaders since 2007 is almost 3-over (74.94).
Focus on – Jon Rahm
Jon Rahm is a two-time winner on the PGA TOUR but, surprisingly, is yet to hold a 54-hole lead. He was three back with 18 to play when memorably landing the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines with an eagle at the 72nd hole and four off the pace going into Sunday at the 2018 Career Builder Challenge. The Spaniard owns three European Tour titles too but was only the third-round leader (joint with Daniel Im) in one of them, the 2017 Irish Open. What really jumps off the page when looking at Rahm’s five victories are his final-round scores. Starting with Torrey, they read: 65-65-67-67-67. If the 24-year-old gets up a head of steam on a Sunday, he’s very hard to stop.
The two Euros had a three-shot lead at the start of play but ended it one back from a Ryder Cup colleague. On one level, it was disappointing; on another, both players churned out 2-under 70s when not at their best. Rounds that could have been a D- turned into a B- and those are a huge part of winning at the highest level. Fleetwood summed it all up nicely. “Five-under for my last 10, 11 holes is really, really good and I’m really pleased with how it finished. It’s very difficult to have four good rounds in a tournament. I’ve shown that many times and everybody does but days like today when you haven’t played well, I’ve got a chance now. I can go and rest, I can get up tomorrow, I can work on my game a little bit and try and find that rhythm I’ve had for two days. You’re in THE PLAYERS Championship and I’m in the last group all weekend. It doesn’t get much better. If you don’t enjoy this, then there’s not much point playing.” McIlroy also spoke afterwards about how pleased he was to turn it around after a poor start. His response to the “Why aren’t you getting it done on Sunday?” question: “Stick to what I’ve been trying to do. I really just need to hit fairways and greens, give myself chances. It’s all cliché, one shot at a time and all that but if I can take the opportunities I give myself, hopefully I can turn tomorrow into the best Sunday of the year so far.” And with a nervous laugh after the final comment, Rory headed to the range. Have both got their difficult rounds out of the way? Or was today the day when they lost momentum and won’t get it back?
Final-Round Scoring Average on the PGA TOUR this season: Rahm 69.71 (T65), McIlroy 70.50 (T115). Fleetwood hasn’t played enough rounds to qualify. If he had? Same as Rory, 70.50.
Focus on – American absence
Last week at Bay Hill, stats guru Justin Ray tweeted: “This is the only PGA Tour event held on U.S. soil in the last 15 years where no Americans finished in the top-5.” The nationalities of the current top five? Spanish, English, Northern Irish, Australian and Mexican. Could lightning strike twice? The next six players on the R3 leaderboard are all American so the home contingent aren’t done with yet.