PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – As omens go, this sounds, well, ominous.
“The Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas was very similar to this, both the Friday round and the Sunday round,” Jon Rahm said late Saturday, following a third-round 64 at The Players. “It was two days where I hit it really, really well tee to green, very similar.”
Rahm was referring to the event he won in December, when he posted rounds of 71-63-69-65 for a four-stroke victory that was really a runaway.
No one else in the field at TPC Sawgrass is going to be happy hearing Rahm talk like that, not after watching what he just did. Rahm was one shot shy of the Stadium Course record Saturday. He possessed an unmistakable swagger.
“I had a good stretch from 1 to 18 pretty much today,” he joked.
His round included an eagle and seven birdies, the former coming when he launched a 4-iron from 244 yards at the par-5 11th. It finished 3 feet from the hole. “[That was] one of those shots that you visualize in your mind, and one of the few times in your life that it's going to come out exactly how you see it,” he said.
In full flight, Rahm is a handful. Think of Lebron James in the open floor or of Todd Gurley in the open field. The 24-year-old powerhouse has all the markings of a presumptive favorite.
Except, golf is fickle. And being the best player on Saturday doesn't always translate to holding the trophy on Sunday.
Just ask Rory McIlroy, who will again begin a final round within striking distance of the lead, just a shot behind Rahm. The Ulsterman has done everything this year except the thing — win. From Hawaii to Jacksonville and at all the stops in between, he’s patiently explained that it’s the process, not the result, that matters.
When he finished fourth at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he started the final turn alone in second place, he leaned into the optimism.
“My attitude was much better today. I didn't press at all. I was very patient. It's just something I'm going to have to persist in, just keep putting myself in these positions,” he said in Maui.
Last month when he won the B-flight at the WGC-Mexico Championship, taking runner-up honors five shots behind Dustin Johnson, he was equally reasoned.
“Dustin had a four-shot lead starting out. When you have a four-shot lead and shoot 5 under par, no one's catching you,” he said. “It was sort of like there was two different golf tournaments going on, and I won the second one. DJ was just a little bit above everyone else this week.”
And when he again began a final round in the day’s anchor group only to slip and slide his way to a closing 72 and a sixth-place showing at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, his glass was still half-full.
“I'm playing well, I'm getting myself into contention every week, continue to do that, going into next week, that's the great thing about golf, you don't have to wait too long to get back on the horse,” he explained, having recorded his fifth top-10 finish in five starts.
So when he sets out on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass in the day’s penultimate group following a third-round 70, it won’t be Rahm’s flawless play on Day 3 that occupies McIlroy’s thoughts.
It’s the old distinction for Tour types: sometimes you lose a tournament and sometimes you get beat. For McIlroy, Mexico was the latter, when Johnson boatraced the field. He could face a similar force on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass in Rahm, but through 54 holes, McIlroy is once again in the hunt.
“In a good position, not the best position I could be in. But I thought after the start today that to play the last 16 holes in 4 under par with no bogeys was a good effort,” he said, referencing his bogey-bogey opening at Nos. 1 and 2.
They'll go off in back-to-back tee times, but you could group Tommy Fleetwood with McIlroy. The Englishman took a lead into last weekend at Bay Hill, only to blow up on Saturday. He'll head out in Sunday's final pairing with Rahm, having rebounded from an even worse start than McIlroy's on Saturday, playing his first two holes in 3 over.
“I think at the end of the day, winning is very difficult. Four days of golf is a long time, like I've said before,” said Fleetwood, who three-putted from 11 feet for double bogey at the first and followed with a bogey at the second. “But you have to take the positives all the time about how consistent your golf is.”
Each of the would-be champions are wrestling with their own Sunday demons, but it may be Mother Nature that has the final say. The forecast is expected to take a bad turn on Sunday, with rain chances around 80 percent and temperatures in the 50s.
Welcome back to The Players Championship in March.
“I think tomorrow's one of those you try to make a gameplan, but all the while you know that it could be pissing down rain. It could be really windy. You don't know what you're going to get and you just kind of play it by ear and make the best of the conditions,” said Jim Furyk, who remains in the hunt, five back.
For Rahm, the gameplan is straightforward. For all the attention given to McIlroy’s start this year, Rahm has a similar record with top-10 finishes in five of his first six starts. He has no shortage of confidence, and he appears to be maturing in real time.
“About eight months ago, I wouldn't have finished at 8 under,” Rahm admitted. “I think I would have lost my patience on [No.] 14.”
Rahm owns his inconsistencies, as well as his emotions. He just has to own them for 18 more holes on a layout meant to frustrate. He will begin the final round in the pole position, with a game showing few weaknesses at the moment. But as McIlroy can attest, even the most obvious of favorites don’t always end up holding a trophy.