FedEx Cup Playoffs
J.J. Spaun seizes the lead, Cam Smith lurks and Rickie Fowler craters with late disaster in Memphis
Sepp Straka (left) and J.J. Spaun at the 18th tee during the third round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship.
MEMPHIS — On a day when it seemed almost impossible for any player to get separation at the FedEx St. Jude Championship, two players managed it at the end—and not by much.
J.J. Spaun finished the day at 13 under, one shot ahead of Sepp Straka, who bogeyed 18 to fall to 12 under, but remains in Sunday's final group. A shot behind them was the trio of Will Zalatoris, Trey Mullinax, and World No. 2 Cameron Smith, while an astounding 22 players lurk five shots over closer to the lead, promising a chaotic Sunday in which the winner will almost certainly have to post a gaudy score to distance himself from the competition.
For Spaun, the 36-hole leader, it looked like a case of running in place on the front, where he made nine straight pars to give up ground to the chase pack. Another bogey on 10 saw him slide back even further, but three birdies on the home stretch vaulted him back into the lead.
"It was a theme of patience, I believe, for today," he said. "I didn't make a birdie until 11 and had a few good looks, but it was one of those days where I felt like I was going to get lapped. … Maybe in the past I would have not looked [at the leaderboard] and think I'm getting lapped, but reality was I was even par and I was still tied for the lead for the most part. It kind of helped me be OK with being patient."
Spaun, 31, will be seeking the second win of both this season and his entire PGA Tour career after his victory at the Valero Texas Open in April, and the same can be said of Straka, who won the Honda Classic in February for his maiden victory. Straka, 29, fell victim to a very up-and-down performance, with five birdies offset by three bogeys, including a misstep on the last after failing to go up and down from a greenside bunker. Still, following six missed cuts in a row, this is already a positive week for the Austrian.
"It was a lot of good, a lot of bad, but overall I'm pretty happy with it," Straka said. “I actually felt like the work we did with me and my coach, John Tillery, earlier in the week last week was really good and just obviously had a terrible week [at the Wyndham Championship]. I felt like that was heading in a pretty good place and that continued this week."
Among the group within two shots of the lead is Smith, whose week has been defined until now by the controversy over rumors and reports that he will defect to LIV Golf following the FedEx Cup playoffs. A win in Memphis would move Smith to No. 1 in the world as a result of Scottie Scheffler missing the cut, and he’d be atop the playoff standings.
"That would mean a lot," Smith said of the world ranking. "That's what we're all here to do. That's been one of my goals probably since the start of the year is to try to get to that top spot and try and chase it down."
On the topic of LIV, Smith adopted on Saturday his usual no-comment stance coupled with a choice platitude or two, conceding that there have been a "few more" distractions, but saying, "I'm just trying to hit the best shot I can."
Will Zalatoris, who is still hunting for his first PGA Tour win despite a few extremely close calls at some extremely big events, seems to have benefited from his caddie change, and will have his latest shot to get a victory on Sunday, while the bunch at nine under includes Sungjae Im, who shot the day's best round with a 63, Tony Finau, Matt Fitzpatrick, and Sam Burns among the biggest names. (Burns was a participant in perhaps the strangest and funniest press conference of the year following his third round 67.) After Im, Zalatoris had the second-best round of the day (65), including a stretch of four straight birdies on the back nine that saw him launch into contention:
Finau is coming off two straight wins at the 3M Open and the Rocket Mortgage Classicand remains arguably the hottest golfer on the planet. His Saturday was relatively tame by recent standards, though, and included three bogeys en route to a pedestrian-by-his-standards 69.
There are huge playoff implications for all players on Sunday. Spaun, for instance, could rise all the way from 25th to second with a win and guarantee his place in the Tour Championship. The top 70 players will make the second playoff leg next week at the BMW Championship, and among the players who are currently projected to have played their way from outside the bubble to in are Tyler Duncan, Hayden Buckley, Andrew Putnam, Wyndham Clark and Adam Scott.
On the flip side, the players who started in the top 70 and now find themselves on the outside looking in include Brendon Todd, Anirban Lahiri, Alex Smalley and John Huh. Among that group, only Todd made the cut and has a chance to fight his way back to the BMW on Sunday.
Rickie Fowler, who also changed his caddie this week after making the playoffs on the number at position 125 in the standings, seemed to have found his form early in the week, but imploded with a quintuple bogey on his final hole Saturday to fall from three under on the day to two over. Barring an absolute miracle, that gruesome 9 at the 18th will end his hopes of continuing on in these playoffs.