PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – They’re playing mind games.
If you listen to Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood, Sunday’s final round of The Players Championship may be as much about navigating the hazards in the six inches between their ears as it will be about navigating all the trouble in architect Pete Dye’s 7,189-yard layout at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course.
Rahm will take a one-shot lead on McIlroy and Fleetwood into the final round knowing all the work he is putting into taming his combustible temperament will be put to a supreme test.
“I’ve been working so hard on the mental aspect of my game, to keep myself in check a little more,” Rahm said. “That’s been the key this week.”
Unhappy with his angry Incredible Hulk transformations in his first two full seasons on tour, Rahm will be looking to keep channeling Bruce Banner. He said even his brilliant 8-under-par 64 Saturday wasn’t without some internal challenges.
“I’ve been so balanced, nothing like I used to be,” Rahm said. “The frustration’s not getting to me, even when I missed shots, like I did at No. 6 today [making bogey]. I’ve been really proud of myself and how I’ve been handling myself this week. Hopefully, tomorrow, it shows how different I’ve been.”
This entire season has been a mind game for McIlroy.
His run of good play seems to be as much about controlling a new focus as it has been about controlling his golf ball.
After taking a share of the lead Friday, McIlroy reiterated how his approach to the game is all about “the three P’s” now. That would be “perspective, persistence and poise.” He explained how he’s changing what matters most in how he thinks about the game.
“My attitude has been great all year, and that's the one thing I've been trying to focus on the most,” he said.
At the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, McIlroy talked about how he may know too much about the game’s history and records for his own good.
“It’s definitely taken me time to come to terms with the things I've needed to deal with inside my own head,” he said at Bay Hill. “I think, sometimes, I'm too much of a fan of the game, because I know exactly who has won the Grand Slam, and I know exactly the people I would be putting myself alongside . . .
“At the end of the day, all you're trying to do is get that ball in the hole, and if you feel like you're doing that pretty well, then what's there to be frustrated about? And, yes, I've had to tell myself to be patient at times.”
With even heavier northerly winds blowing in Sunday, and with rain expected, the test Dye’s design offers promises to be even more of a mental grind.
Saturday was just that for both for McIlroy and Fleetwood, who began the third round sharing a three-shot lead.
They were both put to the test with poor starts in their final pairing together.
McIlroy opened with a pair bogeys but gathered himself on the way to shooting 70.
“To play the last 16 holes in 4 under par, with no bogeys, was a good effort,” McIlroy said. “I don't mind bogeying the first, that's fine, but then the bogey at the second hole was a little disappointing.
“But I showed some character out there, showed some grit. Got a few back. It would have been nice to pick up a couple in the last few holes, but I'm still right there going into tomorrow.”
Fleetwood double bogeyed the first. He went from three shots ahead to four behind with his bogey at the seventh.
“All of a sudden, I turned up today and was hitting it nowhere near as good,” Fleetwood said. “I could feel that my rhythm was out and it was just a grind.”
But Fleetwood charged back with five birdies over the final 12 holes to shoot 70.
“I'm glad that I showed the strength mentally more than anything really today, to get it around and under par,” he said.
As much success as McIlroy has had in his career, as a former world No. 1 with four major championship titles, he has a few demons to slay Sunday. He has been in the final Sunday pairing nine times the last two years and failed to win. McIroy missed an opportunity to get back in another final Sunday pairing when he didn't convert a closing birdie chance on Saturday, but there is still a statement to make in this final round.
Fleetwood has his own challenges to overcome. He squandered a chance to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational last weekend after taking the lead into Saturday. He’s a four-time European Tour winner looking to win his first PGA Tour event.
“It's very difficult to have four good rounds in a tournament” Fleetwood said. “I've shot that plenty of times, and everybody does, but days like today, when you haven't played well, I’ve given myself a chance now.”
A chance to win the mind game.