Planet Golf — 20 August 2021 by GW staff and news services
Smith’s 60 ties Rahm for first in ‘TRUST

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Cameron Smith missed out on his chance at a 59 and figured he at least would keep close to the lead Saturday at THE NORTHERN TRUST. Thanks to a few surprising blunders by Jon Rahm, they wound up in a tie.

And now they get a day off because of Hurricane Henri.

Smith missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole and had to settle for an 11-under 60 to set the course record at Liberty National. Rahm finally got going with a string of birdies, only to twice hit into the water that briefly cost him the lead and certainly slowed his momentum.

The U.S. Open champion had two birdies, one bogey, a double bogey and a terrific par save over the final five holes to scratch out a 67.

They were at 16-under 197, one shot ahead of Erik van Rooyen of South Africa. He made 10 birdies for a 62, one of four rounds at 62 or lower.

Justin Thomas (67) and Tony Finau (68) were three shots behind. Shane Lowry and Corey Conners each shot 62 and remained in the mix.

The average score in the third round was 68.3

Smith teed off some three hours before the leaders and opened with five birdies in six holes, one of several good starts. The Australian, however, kept it going. He picked up his eighth birdie on the 13th, came within a foot of a hole-in-one on the 14th and started thinking 59.

Smith narrowly missed an eagle putt on the reachable par-4 16th, hit a wedge stiff on the 17th to reach 11 under for the round and was one birdie away from the 13th sub-60 round on the PGA TOUR. His approach to the 18th settled 12 feet to the right of the flag.

“Just didn’t do it,” Smith said.

Even with Smith posting his 60, Rahm regained the lead with his fifth birdie of the round on the 11th hole, and he had good scoring chance ahead of him.

They just didn’t work out very well for him.

From the fairway on the par-5 13th, he found the water in front of the green. After a penalty drop, he hit it well to the left into deep rough on a bank, barely got that on the green and took two putts for a double bogey.

Then, he went long on the par-3 14th along the Hudson River into rough so thick he could barely see his ball. Opening up the face of his lob wedge and playing it like a bunker shot, he chopped out superbly to 5 feet for par.

He regained a share of the lead with a short birdie on the 15th, and then drove just left of the green on the 16th. But his flop shot came out way too hot, rolled across the green and into the water, leading to bogey. He answered that with a 2-foot birdie on the 17th and narrowly missed a birdie chance on the 18th.

Thomas was among several players making a move that got stopped in their tracks. He started the back nine with three birdies in four holes, only to go long of the par-3 14th into a hazard and made double bogey. Even so, he’s very much in the mix.

Harold Varner III made his blunder at the worst time. A poor drive on the 18th was followed by a blocked approach over the wall and into the hazard. He made triple bogey, had to settle for a 68 and went form one shot off the lead to a tie for ninth, four shots behind.

Varner is still in good shape to be among the top 70 in the FedExCup who advance to next week. More pressure is on Tom Hoge (No. 108) and Keith Mitchell (No. 101), who have to finish somewhere around the top 10 to keep their seasons going.

Hoge shot 67 and was tied for sixth with Lowry and Viktor Hovland (65), three shots behind. Mitchell took triple bogey with a bad drive on the 10th. He was tied for 11th, five behind.

SECOND ROUND

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Jon Rahm is young enough at 26 that the FedEx Cup has been a big part of the PGA Tour as long as he has been chasing his dreams, and winning the trophy would mean a lot to him.

He just doesn’t like the way it works, and building a one-shot lead Friday in The Northern Trust was only a reminder that great golf doesn’t really mean much without a great finish.

“I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s fair,” Rahm said Friday after another bogey-free round at Liberty National, this one a 4-under 67 for a one-shot lead over Tony Finau.

What never made sense to him was someone who could win the all the postseason tournaments and then finish with a dud at the Tour Championship and “you can end up with a really bad finish.”

The PGA Tour was trying to create drama among more than a few players at the final event. This is the postseason, and the example often cited was the New England Patriots going undefeated until losing the Super Bowl.

Rahm had an answer for that, too.

“They still finished second,” he said.

For now, Rahm can only worry about the tournament at hand, and while he has produced a mixture of great shots and great saves to reach 12-under 130, he still has his hands full.

“Believe it or not, hit my fair share of bad shots today,” Rahm said. “Much like yesterday, I was able to save a couple of good ones. … Coming into the weekend, I’m definitely going to have to clean a couple of those mistakes up.”

Finau had a 64 with a bogey on the final hole as he tries to secure another spot among the 30 who make it to the season-ending Tour Championship, along with boosting his bid to play his way onto another Ryder Cup team.

Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele tied his personal best on the PGA Tour and the course record at Liberty National with a 62 and was in the group at 10-under 132 along with Justin Thomas (69) and Keith Mitchell (64).

Thomas, who shared the 18-hole lead with Rahm, couldn’t figure out which way the ball was going in making four bogeys in eight holes, only to play his last five holes in 5 under — that included an eagle at the par-5 eighth — to stay in the mix.

Mitchell did his work at the start of his round by running off six straight birdies, a streak that ended on the 18th hole as he made the turn. He took two shots to get out of a longer bunker and made double bogey on No. 7, only to close with two birdies.

More is it stake for Mitchell, who is No. 101 in the FedEx Cup and needs a high finish to be among the top 70 who advance to next week at the BMW Championship.

Jordan Spieth got back in the game with a consecutive eagles — he holed out from the fairway on the par-4 fifth and holed a chip from the edge of the water on the par-5 sixth — and tied the course record himself at 62. That left him four behind, along with Brooks Koepka (64).

Spieth started the day worried about making the cut, especially after a bogey on the opening hole. He ended it in a tie for 10th, and figures he led the field in luck with those eagles.

“When things starting well, you go on a run, right? You get momentum and the ball finds the cup and when it’s not going well it bounces the wrong way,” he said. “I feel like I’m on the right side of some momentum right now and I just have to keep it going.”

For others, their season is over.

Adam Scott, who missed a 4-foot putt in a playoff that would have won the Wyndham Championship last week, followed an opening 67 with a 75 to miss the cut by one shot. He was among 28 players outside the top 70 in the FedEx Cup who missed the cut.

Rahm isn’t the only player who doesn’t like the postseason model.

The new system that began in 2019 awards a two-shot lead to the No. 1 seed at the Tour Championship who starts at 10-under par.

“At the end of the day you could win 15 events, including both playoff events, and you have a two-shot lead,” Rahm said. “I understand it’s for TV purposes and excitement and just making it more a winner-take-all and they gave you a two-shot advantage. But over four days, that can be gone in two holes, right?”

He doesn’t have a solution of his own. And he does like the idea that with a staggered start of 10 under for the top seed down to even par for the final five players in the 30-man field, at least players know what they have to do.

He just knows the FedEx Cup is a trophy he’d like to have.

“It’s a trophy that a very select group of people are going to be able to put their name on,” he said. “It’s one of those, kind of like in majors and great events like The Players, to where … you have to show up and play good.”

For now, Rahm can only do so much, and the world’s No. 1 player is doing it well.

FIRST ROUND

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Jon Rahm returned from a month off and played like he was never gone. Justin Thomas took the advice of a 15-year-old and had his lowest score of the year.

Both opened with an 8-under 63 on Thursday at The Northern Trust as the PGA Tour’s postseason began with no shortage of bizarre developments.

Rahm, who missed his chance at the Olympics because of what amounts to a false positive test result for COVID-19, expected a little rust in his game. It just didn’t show on his card. He chipped in for birdie, saved par on the next two holes and was on his way.

Thomas had benched his putter for bad behavior after he spent too much of the year not seeing putts go in the hole. But during his junior event last week, a teenager asked why he wasn’t using his old putter.

“And I found myself defending myself to this 15-year-old,” he said. “I was like, ‘Why am I not using this thing?’ It’s not like I’m making a lot of putts with what I have. If you’re putting well, any of us can go out and putt with anything.”

He didn’t hole all of them, but enough to record nine birdies for his lowest round since a 62 last November in Mexico.

Bryson DeChambeau also made nine birdies. He was eight shots behind. His round of 71 was noteworthy because of the pars he made on No. 4 and No. 10. Those were the only pars he made all day. The nine birdies were offset by five bogeys and two double bogeys.

It was the first time in 10 years someone shot par or better with two pars or fewer.

Not to be overlooked was Dustin Johnson, one of the most stress-free players in golf — at least he looks that way — who uttered words rarely heard: “Threw me for a loop.”

He was hitting drivers on the range, and hitting them well, right before teeing off when a few of them came off the club funny and another one sounded funny. His driver cracked, and Johnson headed to the first tee with 13 clubs and one head cover for his 5-wood.

He had a spare 3-wood in the car — but no driver — and got that on the third hole. If that wasn’t enough, he decided on a putter switch at the last minute. He still managed a 70.

Otherwise, there was a range of good golf in surprisingly strong wind off the Hudson River across from the Manhattan skyline.

Harold Varner III had a 66 in the morning, boosting his postseason chances. He is No. 72 in the FedEx Cup standings, and only the top 70 after this week advance to the next tournament. With the points at quadruple value, some big movements are expected.

The six players at 67 included Adam Scott (No. 82), Robert Streb (No. 68) and Mackenzie Hughes (No. 67).

British Open champion Collin Morikawa, the No. 1 seed, struggled to keep the ball in play and opened with a 74. Jordan Spieth at No. 2 opened with a 72.

Rahm has endured the strangest of times with COVID-19. He tested positive on the day he built a six-shot lead through 54 holes at the Memorial and had to withdraw, and then returned to win the U.S. Open for his first major.

And then after more negative test results than he can remember for the British Open — he tied for third at Royal St. George’s — he had two more negative tests prior to his departure for the Olympics before a positive result showed up. The next day, he took two more tests (both negative), but by then it was too late.

He returned from his bout with COVID-19 by winning a major. This is different. He never had a chance to win a gold medal because he never made it to Tokyo. But he wouldn’t mind the same result, which in this case would be a FedEx Cup title worth $15 million.

“I sure don’t want to have to rely on being pulled out of tournaments to be able to win one, let’s just say that,” he said.

Thomas knows putts that don’t fall is not the fault of the equipment, but something had to change, so he benched his putter at he U.S. Open. Ultimately, it’s about getting the speed to match with the line of the putt, and he did that well for so much of the day.

He holed a 35-foot birdie putt for his first lead on the par-3 14th, gave it back with a poor chip, and then drove the 283-yard 16th green to set up a closing stretch of three straight birdies.

The day started with another development: Patrick Reed withdrew with a sore ankle, the second straight week he has had to withdraw.

Reed is No. 22 in the FedEx Cup, and there are only two tournaments left to qualify for the Ryder Cup. He is No. 9 in the standings, and only the top six automatically qualify. The idea was to give it another week of rest and being ready for the next one.

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