GAINESVILLE, Va. – When Troy Merritt completed his record-setting round of 61 he figured his 14-under-par total would leave him squarely back in the pack by the time dusk settled over Robert Trent Jones Golf Club.
“Decent chance,” he figured when he completed his round just as the day’s last group was heading out at the Quicken Loans National.
Little did he know a light breeze and intense humidity would combine with Saturday pressure to create a leaderboard as crowed as the Capital Beltway at rush hour.
All told, the final five groups and the top 10 players heading into Round 3 posted an average of 70, nine strokes worse than Merritt’s masterpiece that left the 29-year-old tied with Kevin Chappell and a stroke clear of Rickie Fowler.
It was not exactly the afternoon scoring many expected at a spongy layout that had yielded plenty of birdies, not to mention holes-in-one, for the first two and a half days. The result will be a busy landscape for Sunday’s final turn with a dozen players within four strokes of the lead.
“Somebody will do it early and post a number,” said Charles Howell III, who loomed just two back at 12 under after a 67. “You have to stay at it on this golf course and especially if it’s fairly calm tomorrow like it was today. You got to make birdies.”
Welcome to the East Coast version of the Bob Hope Classic where one-way traffic (up the leaderboard) is the only requirement.
One of those early risers on Sunday who will need to claw his way back up the leaderboard is tournament host Tiger Woods, who failed to hit a fairway until the eighth hole on Saturday and scrambled his way to a 74 that didn’t look nearly that good.
After turning in 1 over par Woods made a mess of the par-3 12th for double bogey and added another bogey at the 14th before finally making his first birdie of the day at No. 16. For a player who appeared inspired by two sub-70 rounds to begin his week it was another setback in his journey back to competitiveness.
“I saw a lot of [Round 4 hole location] dots out there for tomorrow. They’re in pretty easy spots. Shoot one of those 61s out there,” said Woods, who needs a victory this week to qualify for next week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, otherwise the PGA Championship may be his last start of the 2014-15 season.
Fowler won’t need to be nearly as perfect as he continues to establish himself as a regular contender. Despite three bogeys, The Players champion signed for a 68 and continues to make good on his promise to start winning more events.
Following last season, when he became the first player to finish inside the top 5 in all four major championships, Fowler committed to taking the next step this year with more trophies. His near-flawless finish at TPC Sawgrass in May was an impressive start and he added another “W” last month by winning the European Tour’s Scottish Open.
“It would have been nice to get a win in the majors last year. With making history and that top 5 in all four majors it's going to be special to look back on, but winning is a lot better than finishing top 5,” Fowler said earlier this week.
While Fowler will be the clear fan favorite on Sunday it will likely be Justin Rose who may have the competitive edge. Although this year’s Quicken Loans National is being held at a new venue, the Englishman has proven himself adept wherever this event is played.
In 2010, he won Tiger’s tournament at Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia; last year he collected his second Quicken Loans title at Congressional. It’s worth pointing out he won last year after starting the final round three shots out of the lead, the same place where he will begin Sunday.
“I’ve won tournaments from four back before and it’s going to take something very low for me. It’s out there, probably 63 tomorrow,” said Rose, who moved into contention with a 65 after a late-afternoon putting session with his short-game coach on Friday.
It was a common theme at an uncommonly low-scoring event. In the eight-year history of the Quicken Loans, just twice (2009 and 2011) has the winning score made it to 13 under. Thanks to Merritt’s early move on Saturday and Chappell’s workmanlike 67 that benchmark has already been eclipsed.
It all sets the stage for a very different final round from what players and fans have come to expect at the Washington, D.C. area stop.
“You’ve got to keep the pedal down tomorrow,” Howell said.
And you also have to remember this is not your normal Quicken Loans National.