Just in time for Sunday’s last round, the marquee of the Players Championship got all sparkly and promising and multinational, a virtual golfing EPCOT.
The apex golfer of the third round was Spain’s Jon Rahm, who overpowered TPC Sawgrass with a finish that would have done Aaron Copland proud. On the strength of a back-nine 30, Rahm shot a 64 - one shy of the tournament record, and he just missed a 15-footer for birdie on No. 18 - to take sole possession of the lead. He’s at 15 under through three days. Seeing how he started Saturday tied for 10th, his was a big, bold move.
And behold an ambitious world ready to challenge his dominance.
Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the sixth-ranked player on the globe, is one back of Rahm. He had to survive a bogey-bogey start Saturday. And a miscalculated second shot punch out of the pine straw to the par-5 16th that ran through the green and into the water at Mach One (he still salvaged par). Still he did just enough good to shoot 70.
England’s Tommy Fleetwood has been a headliner here the first two days and would not allow his own halting beginning – a double-bogey to open, and two more bogeys before he reached his eighth hole – to remove him from consideration. A humble 70 was enough to leave him tied with McIlroy.
And those within five shots of Rahm’s lead include Australian Jason Day (12 under), Mexico’s Abraham Ancer (11 under), and, when he’s got it all going, the golfer from another planet, Dustin Johnson.
The world’s No. 1 decided to make his presence known with a third solid if not exactly spectacular round here at the Players. But you put enough of those together they really add up. Johnson’s 69-68-69 combine for a neat 10 under. And watch out for this cat if he’s anywhere within reach late Sunday. He is a composite 11 under on the back nine for his first three rounds.
And how about Day, who withdrew from last week’s Palmer Invitational with back pain? Could he have even imagined then that he could be in this position now?
“I was just trying to get upright and be able to swing,” he said. “So it's actually quite nice to have the opportunity be in contention. I'm very blessed about that, and I think if I can walk away hopefully a champion tomorrow, then that's a good little comeback, especially with how I was feeling last week.”
This Players Championship isn’t reserved only for the one-worlders, you know. There’s also something for those who see rivalry everywhere, especially close to home. For anyone who would even take their Georgia-Georgia Tech animosity out onto the gentle plains of golf let it be noted that there are former Bulldogs – Brian Harman (10 under) and Kevin Kisner (9 under) – and a one-time Yellow Jacket – Ollie Schniederjans (10 under) – in the fray.
Struggling as he has tried to retool his game over the last year, Schniederjans shot 65 on Saturday, representing a hopeful sign and his best round over that long period.
“It's been a long grind for me and a process, but my game has felt really, really good this week,” Schniederjans said. “A lot has come together. The first two days I played solid but didn't get the putts to go and didn't really score super well. But today finally had some things go my way. Holed out a wedge shot (for eagle on the par 5 ninth), made a couple 20-footers and some good par saves. Finally had something kind of go my way, and I was able to execute some good shots under pressure and put together a good round.”
Neither Harman nor Kisner are members of the hit-out-of-sight fraternity. But both are competitive cusses. Witness how each recovered from par or worse front nines to remain relevant here Saturday.
Still, the story of Saturday was a dynamic round by Rahm that was highlighted by a ridiculous second shot to the par-5 11th hole. That would be a 4-iron that traveled 244 yards to three feet from the pin.
“I don't know what my scoring average has been on Saturday the last two years, but I think I've beat it by quite a bit. It was a great day. Didn't miss many shots out there,” Rahm said.
“Really, really confident with my irons. Every time I stepped up I felt like I was going to hit a good shot,” he said.
Oh, and a footnote here: Tiger Woods on Saturday continued going in the wrong direction, putting up a 72 next to his first two days’ scores of 70 and 71.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.