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Willett refuses to wilt, Homa’s 'Hands of Stone' and a bunch of 'who’s that?' look to become memorable names

September 17, 2022
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Danny Willett of England hits his tee shot on the 16th hole during the third round of the Fortinet Championship.

Mike Mulholland

Not every PGA Tour player despises LIV. Danny Willett, if he’s being honest, is probably thankful the newly formed golf league exists. After all, while Willett has a Masters green jacket that can never be taken away, he was staring at losing his PGA Tour card again, finishing the 2021-22 season in 141st place on the FedEx Cup points list. However, when enough players defected to LIV, Willett moved up to 124th and with full exempt status, decided to play more in the fall to try and rack up some early points.

Good strategy, Danny, good strategy. Playing with co-leader Max Homa in the final pairing (the first time Willett ever held outright or shared the lead in a PGA Tour event after any of the first three rounds), Willett hung in there despite a hiccup double-bogey 7 on the par-5 ninth (his first over-par score of the week) to finish with a even-par 72, and stand tied for second. Just one shot back of leader Justin Lower, Willett is in position for his first PGA Tour win since that magical Sunday at Augusta National that saw one of our co-workers cash a 66-1 ticket on him. But I digress.

Big things were expected of Willett after he won the Masters in 2016. As far as his PGA Tour results since then, big disappointment is more like it. Willett, however, is seeking to change that narrative.

Willett’s round was non-descript but productive in the sense that with the winds building as the day went on, the parade of pars that sandwiched his birdie-double bogey stretch at Nos. 8 and 9 before a birdie at the 14th broke the string kept him in position, allowing for a closing birdie to keep the deficit at one.

“Some scrappy golf,” Willett said of his round. “I had a few nice looks kind of 12 through 16 and didn't make any. Then yeah, it's always nice to get a little bit of luck down the last there to make a birdie to be in that last group tomorrow.”

Not that anything in his recent PGA Tour career would indicate he’d be on the precipice of victory. Since his Masters-winning season in 2016 Willett has played 86 events with just six top-10s, his best a T-4 at the 2020 Rocket Mortgage.

Still, Willett’s resume is not totally lacking. He has had wins in three significant events in Europe since 2016, and this week, his putter has been cooperating. Using an Odyssey Versa #1 Wide model—basically the same model he used to win the Masters, albeit an inch shorter—Willett is more than five strokes better than the field in strokes gained/putting, aided by a perfect nine-for-nine in the critical four-to-eight-foot range.

That kind of putting is the type that keeps PGA Tour cards—and wins PGA Tour events.

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Max Homa putts on the sixth hole during the third round of the Fortinet Championship.

Orlando Ramirez

Homa’s hands turn to stone on the greens

When it comes to the old saw “horses for courses,” Max Homa is a thoroughbred. Like finishing in the top six each of the last two years at Memorial. Or being in the top 10 (including a win) the last three years at the Genesis. Or having a pair of wins at the Wells Fargo. OK, those came at two different courses but go with me here.

Now Homa is seeking to take his fondness for certain venues to a new level as he is in excellent shape to defend his Fortinet Championship title at Silverado’s North Course.

Excellent, however, did not describe Homa’s game on Saturday. A two-birdie, two-bogey 72 left him tied for second when something closer to his first two days could have opened up a significant lead. Still, Homa avoided fading from contention faster than some of his cut 3-woods off the tee.

Homa’s putter was particularly balky. After rolling the rock to the tune of 5.49 strokes gained/putting over the first two rounds, Homa’s touch, at times, resembled Roberto Duran’s “Hands of Stone.” In dropping more than 2.2 shots to the field on the greens, Homa three-putted from four feet at the par-5 ninth and missed four other putts inside 10 feet.

"Yeah, just a grind," said Homa after the round. "Weather made it tricky. Didn't putt it well. If I would have just putted half decent, shoot three under, I would think. But I'm proud of the way I kept swinging, I didn't get too impatient and kept myself in the golf tournament."

Indeed, Homa is just one shot back of Lower with one round to play. Or to take the horse analogy to the wire, he’s ready for a finishing kick in the homestretch on a course he likes very much.

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Davis Thompson reacts to a par on the 17th hole during the third round of the Fortinet Championship. The PGA Tour rookie starts the final round three shots off the lead.

Mike Mulholland

No-names looking to make a name for themselves

Although some familiar names occupy the top spots on the leaderboard, some of those who took advantage of easier conditions earlier in the day made a big jump Saturday (sorry, I just refuse to call it “Moving Day”) even if their names are so relatively unknown to most golf fans that they need to search their PGA Tour player profile to have an inkling of who they are.

While Harrison Endycott made the biggest move with his 65, others now in position to challenge include Davis Thompson, who moved up 37 spots with a 65 of his own while Paul Haley II climbed 28 places with a 66. Thompson is a 23-year-old whose favorite golf memory was attending a practice round at the 2011 Masters and wondering what it would be like to play in it (along with loving Double Stuffed Oreos and Batman movies) while Haley is a 34-year-old journeyman who played one year on the PGA Tour in 2013 and missed all but three cuts. Perhaps more notable is that he played baseball in sixth grade with Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw. See, told you those guys sent people scurrying to their player profile notes. And no, we didn’t forget Adam Svensson here. It’s just some people beyond his immediate family actually know who he is.

Of course, these players are seeking something those two accomplished athletes already have—wins at the highest level of the game. If their Sunday performances match those of their respective third rounds, they might just accomplish that, too.