MIAMI: Jon Rahm stormed out of the pack with an eight-under-par 64 at the Players Championship on Saturday, taking a one-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood to set up the prospect of a compelling final-round battle between European heavyweights.
The Spaniard used his prodigious power to plunder an eagle and seven birdies at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, matching the best score of the week on a day when the predicted northerly wind did not materialise.
“I had a good stretch from one to 18 pretty much today,” Rahm said with a smile after finishing on 15-under 201 for the tournament.
That was enough to edge ahead of overnight leaders Northern Irishman McIlroy and Englishman Fleetwood, who quickly frittered away what had been a three-shot advantage over their nearest rivals.
McIlroy bogeyed the first two holes while Fleetwood double-bogeyed the first, where he missed a two-foot putt that did not even touch the cup.
But they both worked their way back into contention and carded 70s, a particularly good return for McIlroy in light of some mediocre driving.
The presence of former world number one and 2016 champion Jason Day lurking three strokes behind Rahm in fourth place after a 68 added another layer of intrigue to the Sunday possibilities.
World number 10 Rahm, in his third appearance in the event, had one of those glorious days when the swing is working well, the mind is clear and the attitude is positive.
“(I felt) really, really confident with my irons,” said the 24-year-old, who on Sunday will be looking to become the second Spanish winner of the event after Sergio Garcia in 2008.
“Every time I stepped up I felt like I was going to hit a good shot.”
Rahm missed a 13-foot birdie putt at the last that would have given him a share of the course record but was so “in the zone” that he had to ask his caddie his score.
“I was so focused on each shot, I wasn’t thinking on the course record,” he explained.
If Rahm was in the zone, McIlroy was in damage control mode.
“Not the best position I could be in, but I thought after the start today that to play the last 16 holes in four-under par with no bogeys was a good effort,” he said before heading to the range to rectify some minor faults in his swing.
World number 13 Fleetwood, chasing his first PGA Tour victory, hit what he called a number of “shockers” and was relieved to escape with a sub-par round.
“I hit some dreadful shots early on,” said the affable 28-year-old from Southport near Liverpool.
“The iron shot into one was a shocker after a perfect drive. Made an absolute hash of that hole. I hit some better shots coming in, but it was just a real test of grit and mental strength more than anything.”
Tiger Woods went in the wrong direction with a 72 to slip into a tie for 43rd at three under.
Irishman Seamus Power got his St Patrick’s Day celebrations under way early after making a hole-in-one at the 155-yard third.
It was the third ace of the week. — Reuters
Leading scores after Saturday’s third round (USA unless noted, par 72):
201 - Jon Rahm (ESP) 69-68-64
202 - Rory McIlroy (NIR) 67-65-70, Tommy Fleetwood (ENG) 65-67-70
204 - Jason Day (AUS) - 70-66-68
205 - Abraham Ancer (MEX) - 69-66-70
206 - Ollie Schniederjans 71-70-65, Brandt Snedeker 69-72-65, Keegan Bradley 65-73-68, Dustin Johnson 69-68-69, Brian Harman 66-69-71, Jim Furyk 71-64-71
207 - Joel Dahmen 69-71-67, Patrick Reed 69-69-69, Adam Scott (AUS) 70-69-68, Kevin Kisner 68-68-71