PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – A sprint to the finish between a pair of Europeans looms at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba.
With heavy rains washing out much of Sunday's action, 27 players will return to El Camaleon on Monday to put a cap on the penultimate event of the wraparound season’s fall slate.
In one corner stands Graeme McDowell, an established champion eager to close a disappointing year on a high note. Across from him is Russell Knox, a winner just last week whose whirlwind travel has left him running on fumes, but running hot nonetheless.
The pair share the top spot at 19 under, two shots clear of Jason Bohn with less than six holes to go. Both began the day three shots behind leader Derek Fathauer, but they opened their final rounds with six birdies apiece and no bogeys.
By virtue of his position on the course, Knox may have a slight edge. McDowell has already played the par-5 13th, one of the easiest holes on the course, and faces a stern test on the par-4 14th. Knox will return to a short pitch shot on No. 13, with a great chance to get up-and-down for birdie and become the first player this week to reach 20 under.
Playing for the fifth straight week in his fourth different country, Knox is proof that momentum can travel.
“I know maybe when I get home I’ll have a physical breakdown and sleep for days, but I feel fine,” Knox said. “I can certainly play five more holes.”
Knox was a relatively unheralded player for the last two years on the PGA Tour, but he broke through last week in China for his first career win at the WGC-HSBC Champions. The confidence he gained from outlasting a strong field has been on display this week, where he is 18 under for his last 48 holes following an opening-round 70.
“At least I know I can do it. I’m in a great position, obviously,” he said. “I’m the only person up there that won last week, so I can really freewheel it tomorrow. I can’t wait to give it another try.”
To capture his second trophy in as many weeks, though, Knox will have to pull clear of McDowell, who is looking for his first piece of hardware in nearly three years.
Having finally figured out the opening hole at El Camaleon, where he made par Sunday after playing it in 5 over across the first three days, McDowell now has an opportunity to punch his ticket to the Masters – an invite Knox clinched a week ago.
“It’s a bit of a shootout so you’ve just got to keep sort of the pedal down tomorrow morning and try and shoot a score,” McDowell said. “We’ll regroup and get out there tomorrow morning and see how we can finish the day.”
With soft conditions yielding low scores, McDowell didn’t make his first birdie of the day until No. 5, but that started a run of three straight that brought him back in the mix. After a delay of more than three hours, he returned to the course and played his final five holes 3 under.
“Really just trying to keep it simple on the greens,” he said. “Like I say, been seeing it well and I’ve been knocking some in, and that was a nice way to kind of finish the day with a couple birdies.”
Like McDowell, Knox maintained his strong play after the delay. Following a birdie on No. 11 that gave him the lead, Knox rolled in a 5-foot par save on No. 12 to avoid what would have been just his fourth bogey of the week.
“I hate making bogeys more than I love making birdies, I think,” he said. “The par putt on 12 was huge for me. Then to hit a nice second shot there on 13, to be in great position, was big. I’m really thrilled how I finished the day.”
With Bohn the only player within four shots of the co-leaders, this overtime finale appears ready to be decided between a pair of players moving in opposite directions.
For Knox, it’s a chance to quickly validate his breakthrough victory, much like Billy Horschel did during the 2014 FedEx Cup Playoffs, and move further up the world rankings to bolster a potential Ryder Cup bid that was non-existent two weeks ago.
For McDowell, it’s an opportunity to earn the redemption he sought by coming to this event, mired in a year-long slump and in search of inspiration.
His ball-striking has turned around this week at El Camaleon, and his trademark grin has returned. Whether that’s enough to hold off the hottest player on Tour, though, remains to be seen.