HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Jim Furyk says he’s done putting pressure on himself.
That’s good, because about two dozen players plan to give the sixth-ranked Furyk all he can handle in the final round of the Verizon Heritage.
Furyk shot a 4-under 67 on Saturday to reach 11 under, good for a one-stroke lead over Brian Davis (66) at Harbour Town Golf Links.
At other times in his career, Furyk might’ve obsessed about success and driven himself nuts if he didn’t follow a third-round lead with a victory.
Now, less than a month away from 40 – and with a victory earlier this season at the Transitions Championship that ended a nearly three-year drought – Furyk is content to focus on what’s good about his game instead of what’s not.
“I felt like I had to be perfect and I had to hit every shot just right. I put undue pressure on myself,” Furyk said. “And I’m finding myself now going out there and enjoying that back nine, getting in the heat of battle.”
That was apparent Saturday when Furyk shook off a slow start while chasers who started the round behind him moved past.
Nick O’Hern, who teed off five hours ahead of the final group, gave an early indication of Saturday’s free-for-all with a 64 that put him atop the leaderboard before 36-hole leaders Furyk, Charles Howell III and Greg Owen were done with lunch.
“By the time I teed off I was in about fourth place, then I played a couple of holes and I was already dropping,” Furyk said.
At 2:45 p.m., 10 players were tied for first, all on a course where Brian Gay set tournament records in 2009 with a 10-shot victory and 20-under score.
When Baird asked where the leaders were and was told he was on top, he quipped, “Yeah, me and eight other guys.”
Almost, Briny, almost.
Two strokes behind Furyk were two-time Verizon champ Boo Weekley (68), Stephen Ames (65), Briny Baird (66), Ricky Barnes (66), Luke Donald (67), Woody Austin (67) and Heath Slocum (67).
Right behind them at Harbour Golf Links was a group that included Camilo Villegas (67) and 2006 winner Aaron Baddeley.
In all, 22 players were within five strokes.
“Tomorrow, it’s go out and shoot as low as you can and not take your foot off the gas pedal,” said Davis, who’s never finished higher than second on the PGA Tour.
Slocum, a hunting and fishing buddy of Boo Weekley, looked as if he would finish the day in front as he came to Harbour Town’s 18th hole. But he sent his approach shot into a steep-faced bunker behind the green and could not get out on his first try.
He settled for a double bogey-6 – his second straight at the hole bordering Calibogue Sound – and a prime chase spot on Sunday.
“I’m due for a birdie tomorrow,” Slocum said of the finishing hole.
Furyk appeared as if he didn’t have the stuff to keep up with just one birdie on the front side where players traditionally make runs. He picked up the pace on the back nine, chipping in for birdie from about 40 feet away on the 11th and making a 25-foot birdie putt two holes later.
“I got off to a slow start with my ball striking today,” Furyk said. “Really made some good up and downs, kept myself in the game. Then probably down the stretch, it’s probably the best I’ve hit it all week.”
Furyk could’ve used that game last week, where he missed the cut at the Masters for just the second time in 14 appearances. He made sure to get a bit of work in on the Augusta National range that’s paying off at Harbour Town.
Davis hadn’t shot a round lower than 70 since February. Here, the Englishman posted his third straight score in the 60s to stay in the mix.
“It’s just a different feel this week, so bunched and it’s going to give guys probably three or four shots back tomorrow a great chance,” he said.
Furyk’s got that mindset as well. After a two seconds and a fourth here since 2005, he’d like to come out on top. If he doesn’t, though, he’ll let it go, like he did after missing the Masters cut last week.
“I enjoy the opportunity,” says Furyk, “and looking at the glass as half full rather than half empty like I used to.”
DIVOTS: Five-time Verizon Heritage winner Davis Love III posted a hole-in-one on the par-3 fourth hole. It was Love’s first ace in 90 rounds since first coming here in 1986. … George McNeill had an eagle-2 on the ninth hole. … Blake Adams’ roller coaster at Verizon continued. He followed an opening 77 with a 63 on Friday, the low round of the tournament. Adams was back over par Saturday with a 72. … Amateur Byeong-Hun An, who was just a shot off the lead Friday, could not keep things going in the third round with a 1-over 72 that left him nine strokes behind.
Furyk leads wild shootout in Hilton Head
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Jim Furyk says he’s done putting pressure on himself.
Els: Tiger playing well validates his generation
AUSTIN, Texas – Tiger Woods has come close to looking like the player who ruled golf for the better part of 15 years, and Ernie Els is happy to see it.
Never mind that Els was on the losing end to Woods more than any other player.
He speaks for his generation of Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and others. Els keeps hearing about the depth of talent being greater than ever, and he has seen it. But he gets weary listening to suggestions that Woods might not have 79 PGA Tour victories if he had to face this group.
''I'm just glad he's playing like I know he can play to validate me – validate me, Phil and Vijay,'' Els said. ''We weren't bad players. This guy was a special player. To see him back, playing special stuff again ... is great for the game.''
Generational debates are nothing new.
Every generation was better than the next one. Then again, Jack Nicklaus used to lament that Woods was lacking competition from players who had more experience winning majors, such as Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros.
Mickelson, Els and Singh combined to win 12 majors. Els says Woods won 14 on his own because he was that much better.
Does it get under his skin to hear fans rave about this generation's players?
''It doesn't (tick) me off. Can you imagine how it must (tick) Tiger off?'' he said. ''He was leaps and bounds the best player. People forget very quickly, and then you see special players like we have now, the younger generation. But I know what I played against. You can't take anything away from anybody.''
Doug Ferguson is a golf writer for The Associated Press
Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause
AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.
The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.
“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”
Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.
As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.
“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”
Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid
AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.
Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.
“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”
Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.
“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”
Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.
“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”
This week, let the games(manship) begin
AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.
What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.
During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.
“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”
Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.
“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].
Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.
Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.
“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”
Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.
“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”
While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.
But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.
“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”
It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”
McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”
It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.
“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.
Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.