FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — There is a lot to play for Sunday in the final round of the 101st PGA Championship—even if your name is not Brooks Koepka.
After maintaining his seven-stroke lead on Saturday at Bethpage Black with an even-par 70 and 198 total, Koepka remains the heavy favorite to win his second straight PGA title, not to mention successfully defend his second straight in a major played in Long Island after his victory last June in the 118th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Can anyone catch him?
“It would take something special,” said Dustin Johnson, who is one of four players tied for second at five-under 205.
“Obviously, Brooks is playing tremendous golf, and who knows what could happen,” said Luke List, who also is at 205 and joins Johnson as the only two players with three rounds under par. “Some majors in history show some big leads, guys come back from. Hopefully this is one of them.”
Johnson and List at least feel like they have an outside chance. England’s Matt Wallace, who is eight back, wasn’t fully conceding either. “If I can get to double figures [under par] tomorrow, I mean, a playoff would be nice,” he said.
Xander Schauffele, who trails Koepka by nine, was having a harder time getting fired up about taking on Bethpage without a realistic chance of grasping the Wanamaker Trophy. “I don’t know if the tournament is just less fun because I’m 15 shots back or what it is. But it’s very melancholic after today I’d say, just because every time I look up, I’m 10 to 12 back. So no one likes to play for second, but that’s sort of what he's doing to us.”
Regardless, it’s a big day for a number of players. And it’s an important day no matter where a player sits on the leader board.
“There’s never a wasted round or a wasted shot,” said five-time major winner Phil Mickelson, who careened out of contention with a six-over 76 on Saturday. “You can learn on every single one of them.”
At 48, the left-hander was considering what an early start in the final round could do for him. It’s more than you would think.
“There’s a lot of things that you can take out in the small moments, and obviously I’m not going to win this tournament, but the greens are very similar, this grass is Pebble Beach,” said Mickelson, who was looking ahead to next month’s U.S. Open at that iconic venue. “The setup, the rough is very similar, the grasses in the fairway are similar. So you use that as preparation to … see how the ball is coming out of the rough, how balls shoot out of the fairway. All the little details, and you try to build on it and take it into the future tournaments.”
Likewise, the future benefits of a decent final round were important to a less-established player like Wallace, 29, making just his second start in the PGA.
“I've got to do some work tomorrow and try and get as many World Ranking points as I can, and that will give me confidence going into the rest of the years, and also majors in the coming years,” he said. “That’s important to me, and there’s a lot of drive for me to go out there and prove myself, and try and put a good show on for the crowd.”
Playing in just his ninth major championship, List, 34, of Augusta, Ga., is looking to improve on his previous best showing in a major, his T-33 in the 2005 Masters when he competed as an amateur. At first he insisted that, “we have a lot to play for every week on Sunday, so it's no exception.”
But majors carry more world ranking points, offer bigger purses, and for American players there are also Ryder Cup points to accumulate. Plus, the top four finishers earn an invite to the Masters, which would be significant achievements for players like List or Harold Varner III.
“I’ve got a lot to play for,” he said, noting that he would try to approach the final round like a regular tournament and not worry about how the leader is faring. “If I start worrying about what he's doing, I've got no chance. For me it's just trying to get through and give myself as many opportunities to get on the green as possible. I'm just going to go out and try to shoot under par tomorrow.”
Patrick Cantlay, sitting T-8 at three-under 207, planned to be more assertive about his fortunes. “I’m going to really try and get hot early, because I think those six seven holes are gettable before the course toughens up,” he said of his strategy for Sunday. “I’d like to make some birdies early and just see how low I can go. I’ll come out firing. I’m always better being aggressive.”
For some of the top players, elites like Mickelson, motivation was a little harder to find, but they found it nevertheless.
“If you look at my back nine yesterday [Friday] and my front nine today I was seven under par, so I want to see if I can carry some of that momentum to the final day,” said two-time PGA winner Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 4 in the world, who completed 54 holes in two-over 212. “This was the best I’ve hit it in a while, so that’s what we’ll be trying to carry over.”
Rickie Fowler, No. 10 in the world rankings, had more specific goals—a backdoor top-five with a Hail-Mary try at runner-up from his position of one-under 209. “I’d love to go play a solid round of golf, first of all, because I haven’t done that this week,” said Fowler, who has been battling a cold. “I haven’t felt good with any part of my game, so I’m going to go work on it, and, yeah, I think I can go out there and shoot 66 or lower. It would take a good round to do it, but I think I can make a pretty good jump [up the leaderboard] with that kind of score.”
“Some of it [motivation] depends on what the guys are doing in front of me today,” added 2015 PGA champion Jason Day, who, like McIlroy, stands at 212. “I’m a fair bit behind. How far can I sneak up the leader board with a good round? That’s a start.
“But it’s more about building some good confidence going forward and get things rolling in the right direction,” Day, No. 14 in the world, continued. “I want to see some better golf with Memorial and then the U.S. Open right after that. We’ve still got a couple of majors yet. There’s still a big chunk of the schedule to prepare for, and I know I have a few things that I can improve on and gain some confidence. You try to take something out of every day.”
Right. There’s never a wasted round.