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Drought in the desert: Star trio eyeing to buck winless spell in Phoenix

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The masses have headed for the Uber line, and the raucous din at TPC Scottsdale has been reduced to a few empty beer cans clinking together. Yes, there’s still one more day of action at the self-proclaimed "People’s Open," but the hijinks and chaos are always a little bit muted once the tournament reaches its final chapter.

Saturday is the party day at TPC Scottsdale, the afternoon when seemingly the entire population of the greater Phoenix metropolis lets loose and descends upon a patch of green grass in an otherwise barren desert. But now the focus returns to the golf, where surrounded by rocks and sand on every side it appears a drought is going to end one way or another.

Waste Management Phoenix Open: Full-field scores | Full coverage

Tony Finau is one of the most accomplished golfers walking the planet, comfortably ranked inside the top 15 in the world and fresh off an appearance at the Presidents Cup. The same can be said of Webb Simpson, who trails Finau by one shot heading into the final round. But the one thing they haven’t done much, recently, is win.

Granted, it hasn’t been for a lack of opportunity. Trophy expectations have followed Finau ever since he captured the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, an opposite-field event that remains his lone PGA Tour victory. He’s managed to play his way onto two straight U.S. teams without a win, which is not exactly an easy thing to do and serves as a testament to his consistent play. But he’s had six runner-up finishes over the last three years, continually getting within arm’s reach of the winner’s circle but no closer.

Finau (62) goes bogey-free to take lead at WMPO

Tony Finau catapulted to the top of the leaderboard Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open thanks to a bogey-free, 9-under 62 at TPC Scottsdale.

Entering 2020, Finau was open about the fact that a good season by his standards must include a victory. Given the either/or choice of a Tour win or a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, he opted for individual glory without hesitation. He’ll have a chance to tick off that looming box in his new hometown thanks to a 9-under 62 in the third round that gave him the lead, and could have challenged the course record were it not for two missed putts from inside 6 feet over his final four holes.

“If I want to accomplish the things I feel like I can accomplish, I have to put those type of expectations on myself,” Finau said. “I always tell myself whatever happens, you’re going to learn from it and get better and stronger as long as it doesn’t kill you. I’m still standing here punching, and I’m going to do that for the rest of my career.”

No one is questioning Simpson’s ability to close, what with his 2012 U.S. Open and 2018 Players trophies still sitting at home. But amid a career resurgence, he’s remarkably racked up four runner-up finishes over the last seven months. Sometimes he’s been outplayed (see Rory McIlroy’s blitz on the field in Canada), and others he might like to have back (a playoff loss to Tyler Duncan at the RSM Classic).

Simpson has bounced back from a slow start in Scottsdale, carding consecutive rounds of 63-64, and he hopes to put his hard-earned lessons to good use as he looks to win for the first time since his Sawgrass triumph two years ago.

“To win out here now is getting harder. So no matter who wins tomorrow, they’re going to have to shoot a special round,” Simpson said. “Hopefully you need to get off to a good start Sunday to kind of stay in the mix, and I plan on doing that.”

Watch: Ace vaults Simpson into mix at WMPO

It might not have been his first, but Webb Simpson was happy to add an ace to his scorecard on Saturday in Phoenix, which vaulted him into contention.

With the top seven players separated by only three shots, Finau and Simpson are hardly the only decorated players looking to break through after a string of near-misses. Xander Schauffele admitted earlier this week that it took him “four or five days” to get over his playoff loss at last month’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, his fourth runner-up finish in the 13 months since his most recent win. But that overtime loss at Kapalua came when he was looking to close out a 54-hole lead, whereas he now will start the final round in a tie for fifth at 13 under, three shots behind Finau.

It might be a preferred position for Schauffele, given that each of his four Tour wins have resulted from erasing multiple-shot deficits on the final day.

“I’m chasing, so it’s kind of a comfortable spot I would say,” Schauffele said. “Probably keep my head down the first, I don’t know, seven or eight holes. There’s a nice big board on 9, so I’ll probably peek then.”

With more idyllic weather expected, and plenty of birdies to follow, the winning score is anyone’s guess. Finau surmised that 20 under might be a viable target, while others chasing him estimated that it might take even more than that.

But regardless of who lifts the trophy at the Tour’s biggest party, it seems increasingly likely that someone is going to turn a collection of almosts into a watershed win.

“I’ve got 18 holes to try and win this golf tournament,” Finau said. “And my expectation is exactly that.”