The leaderboards at Sedgefield Country Club were coated with red numbers Saturday, as players jockeyed for position in the final event before the FedEx Cup playoffs. At one point 13 names were separated by a single shot, and seven players will begin the final round with a realistic shot at hoisting the trophy.
The man they’ll all be chasing is Nick Watney, who grabbed sole possession of the lead when he buried a 19-foot putt from off the fringe on the 18th hole. His third-round 65 came on the heels of a 6-under 64 in Round 2, and Watney has made only one bogey through 54 holes thanks to a hot putter.
“This is probably the best I’ve putted for three days so far in a row, for a week or for the year,” he said. “When you’re making putts, the game gets a lot easier.”
Watney has suffered through a disappointing season, and after beginning the year ranked No. 30 in the world he teed it up this week ranked No. 75. Two weeks ago, he teed it up at the Barracuda Championship when he missed his first WGC event since 2009.
Watney’s poor play reached a low when, after missing the cut at the Open Championship by one shot, his fate for the FedEx Cup playoffs seemed in doubt. He pointed to the trans-Atlantic flight that followed as a turning point.
“I sort of went to Canada and said, ‘I feel like my game is headed in a really good direction. Haven’t been getting the results but we just need to put our head down and play every week and just enjoy it,” he said. “I was getting to the point where, I don’t know what number (in the standings), I felt I stopped looking because it was kind of depressing.”
The turnaround began the following week at the RBC Canadian Open, where he tied for 12th, then continued with a T-8 in Reno. With his spot in the postseason now secure, Watney is turning his attention toward winning for the first time since 2012.
“I know I’ve had good years when I haven’t won,” he said. “So having a year like this and end up winning a tournament…it would be a huge bonus, and kind of I guess affirm what I’ve been working on.”
Watney, though, is not the only player poised for what could be a season-defining moment. Brad Fritsch is the newest poster child for the FedEx Cup bubble madness, and Sunday will be playing not just for his first PGA Tour win, but his card for next season.
The Canadian entered this week at No. 163 in the points race, and likely needs a two-way tie for second to punch his ticket to The Barclays, although he could lock up his card for 2014-15 with a two-way tie for third, which would allow him to crack the top 125 in earnings.
Of course, Fritsch could take care of everything – and cement his status through 2016 – with a victory. He’ll begin the day at 13 under, one shot behind Watney and playing in the final group for the first time in his career.
“I’m just going to focus on not making mistakes, hitting good shots,” said Fritsch. "I try my best every shot, and whatever happens will happen tomorrow.”
Fritsch is no stranger to these 11th-hour stakes. Last year he finished No. 129 in the FedEx Cup standings and had to play in the inaugural Web.com Tour Finals. After missing the first three cuts in the four-event series, he closed with a final-round 66 to tie for second at the Web.com Tour Championship and earn a return trip to the main circuit.
“I put my back against the wall several times, and usually come out okay on the other end,” Fritsch said. “Last year I made nine birdies in the final round to get my card. It’s always something to fall back on.”
The chase pack also extends beyond Fritsch to include Heath Slocum and Fredrik Jacobson, a pair of PGA Tour winners who are both two shots off the pace with one round to go. Slocum, who played in Saturday’s final pairing, hasn’t cracked the top 10 since winning the 2010 McGladrey Classic but continues to enjoy the thrill of contending after a 2-under 68.
“Golf is just way more fun this way,” he said. “I think maybe getting my butt kicked for a few years and not being in contention for a while, you get back and you remember how much fun it was, and you miss it so much.”
Lurking in the distance, just one shot further back at 11-under 199, are two of the field’s biggest names. Brandt Snedeker and Webb Simpson are both former Wyndham champions, and the two will be paired together for the third time this week as they look to reclaim the Sam Snead Cup.
“I think it takes pressure off, knowing that all the guys around 10, 11 under have to go out and shoot a really low number,” Simpson said after a third-round 66. “It’s not like we’re going out trying to hang on to the lead.”
With favorable pin positions anticipated, the target score for the final round remains anyone’s guess. Fritsch felt the winning score could be as low as 20 under, a barrier not reached at Sedgefield since Arjun Atwal’s improbable win in 2010.
The leaderboards at Sedgefield will certainly turn red once again on Sunday, but that’s not an issue according to the man in front.
“It doesn’t really change,” Watney said. “I assume that when I tee off, I probably won’t be in the lead or tied for the lead, so it’s not like I’m protecting anything tomorrow. Just more of the same.”