EDISON, N.J. – No world No. 1 (Jordan Spieth), no new world No. 1 (Rory McIlroy) and no former world No. 1 (Tiger Woods), and yet Sunday’s final round at The Barclays will get underway with more subplots than a J.K. Rowling novel.
Despite a week virtually devoid of anything that your average golf fan would consider a compelling reason to pay attention – with Spieth gone after missing the cut, McIlroy on the shelf to rest his mending ankle, and Woods out of the playoffs – the options for would-be headlines evolved into a surprisingly long list Saturday.
Jason Day, two weeks removed from his major moment at Whistling Straits, moved into a share of the lead with South Korea’s Sangmoon Bae following matching 63s on Day 3 from the two front-runners.
One can imagine International Presidents Cup captain Nick Price will be watching the final-round action unfold with an eye toward this year’s matches in South Korea. If only a Day-Bae pairing in October would take something less than an international accord.
Bae is scheduled to report for his mandatory 21 months of military service next month after losing a legal challenge last month in South Korea. Without a significant policy change, his participation in the matches doesn’t seem likely.
“I'm not sure if Mr. Nick Price is going to pick me. I'm definitely going to go back [to Korea] after the FedEx Cup,” said Bae, who is currently 25th on the International Presidents Cup point list but can move into the top 10 automatic qualifiers with a victory on Sunday. “[Military service is] mandatory in Korea. I have a little mixed emotion. I have to go and I have only a few tournaments, and I will play really hard and work really hard.”
By comparison, Day’s week has been drama-free, or at least as drama-free as things get for the Australian. On Wednesday, he withdrew from the pro-am with back spasms but said this most recent ailment is a “non-issue.”
“It’s a little tight but when you have back spasms and everything kind of locks up, it’s kind of a granted that it’s going to be tight over the week,” said Day, who moved to 11 under with an eagle at the par-5 16th hole and will tee off in the final group on Sunday for his second consecutive tournament.
Day will be the favorite at an event that has endured a surprising lack of star power. Joining Spieth, McIlroy and Woods in the absentee column this weekend, Sergio Garcia is skipping the first two playoff stops and Rickie Fowler missed the cut at Plainfield.
But if Day is set to carry the marquee on Sunday, Ryan Palmer will be the sentimental favorite. Less than two weeks after his father, Butch, died in an auto accident in Texas, Palmer began the playoffs with admittedly lowered expectations; but after progressively-better rounds of 69-67-65, he's now within two strokes of the lead.
Palmer, whose father died on Aug. 18 and regularly traveled with him to tournaments, said being on the golf course this week has provided a measure of sanctuary for him.
“When he talks about it with you guys (the media) it’s therapeutic,” said Palmer’s caddie, James Edmondson. “Tomorrow is going to be a unique day, but he has the right mind to do something special. It’s really cool what he’s done with the circumstances.”
Add to that potpourri of possible stories in the annual playoffs point chase. As is the case each year during the PGA Tour’s postseason, Sunday leaderboards will transcend the normal urgency of winner-take-all, as players vie to keep their playoff hopes alive.
With a start next week at the Deutsche Bank Championship hanging in the balance, there is a list of surprisingly familiar players who will tee off on Sunday for what is essentially an 18-hole qualifier.
Lee Westwood carded his second-consecutive 73 on Saturday to move into a tie for 70th place, and he is currently projected to finish 116th on the FedEx Cup point list (the top 100 advance to TPC Boston). Vijay Singh, a stroke better than Westwood at 2 over, is projected 120th, while Stewart Cink, who is tied for 26th this week, is currently inside the Boston bubble (projected at 87th).
Hudson Swafford, who began the tournament as this week’s bubble boy at 100th on the list, is tied for 26th and projected inside the cut at 80th. Playing his first postseason, he doesn't seem to be overwhelmed by the moment.
“This is everything to gain, nothing to lose,” Swafford said. “The way I look at it, I have a job next year and I can’t go backwards.”
Officials at The Barclays could have embraced a similar outlook after being dealt a less-than-ideal hand with the absence of so many top players this weekend, and the leaderboard has produced surprisingly compelling options.
From the continued clutch play of Day to the heartwarming efforts of Palmer, The Barclays is turning out better than one would have thought.