That leader board even had a shot at outweighing the weirdness of a Charles Schwab Challenge without galleries, an event witnessed in person only by marshals, shot trackers, TV people, a skeletal volunteer corps, each player’s one allotted guest, that makeshift grandstand party of the family living outside the course near the 16th tee and that dude you might have spotted in cycling gear peeking through the hedges from outside.
“Oh, that’s what you play for,” Harold Varner III even said of a competition gone steep, a quotation that sounded almost normal after his grinding round of 16 pars, one birdie and one bogey shed him of his second-round lead but left him firmly in contention, just two shots back.
Familiar old language returned. Fourteen players remained bunched between 13 under par and 10 under par, the kind of creaky words that might appear week after week after week but sound fresh again after the novel coronavirus hiatus. That cast of 14 brimmed with possibilities.
It had 11 major titles tucked in it. It had three-time major winner Jordan Spieth among five people at 12 under just about three years since he last won on tour, a strange and tortured drought unthinkable when he said hello in the 2015 Masters green jacket at 21. It had Rory McIlroy (10 under) and Justin Rose (10 under) and Patrick Reed (10 under) and Justin Thomas (12 under) and reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland (12 under).
Atop all, it had that 26-year-old phenom, Xander Schauffele, whose swell approach and 12-foot birdie on No. 18 left him alone at 13 under and continued the shouting hints of a coming major title somewhere and maybe somewhere else after that. The San Diegan with the United Nations family tree has, after all, forged five top-six finishes and seven top-20s in just 11 majors.
It had Varner, whose prospective title would be an incredible story after the recent spotlight he has handled as an African American player and who could demonstrate what Sunday wisdom he might have gleaned from his closing 81 at the PGA Championship in May 2019, when he played in the last group alongside winner Brooks Koepka.
And shining in the mix as well there was Collin Morikawa, a 23-year-old from the Los Angeles maze who managed to piece together all-America golf with a tough business degree up at Berkeley. He has played in 21 PGA Tour events. He has made 21 cuts. The record to start a career is 25, by Tiger Woods.
The whole lot of the 14 of them kind of heaved around Saturday afternoon in a fine blob, rising and falling within the group, after which Morikawa looked to Sunday and said: “It’ll feel similar. You know, being only a year out of college, this is what we’re used to.”
Now that was funny, and it was a reminder that the winner will navigate both that unforgiving leader board and this unfamiliar air. How each player handles it might say something about each player, and so players assessed it Saturday with the variations of their personalities.
“I’m kind of a quiet guy, I guess, so I don’t have, like, a huge effect on the crowd, I’d say, so not having fans isn’t the craziest thing to me,” Schauffele said before grinning. Woodland found more normalcy, saying, “Adrenaline was definitely a little bit more today than the first two days,” and said, “Yeah, I mean, you’ll make your own noise.”
McIlroy kind of went the other way, saying, “The last couple days it was fine, but today it’s feeling strange.” Spieth went that direction as well, saying, “Today definitely felt a lot different for it being a Saturday afternoon in the last group, when you [typically] kind of think about the situation you’re in, [but] you just don’t feel like you’re actually out there doing that. I just felt like I was playing a normal round with Harold.” He added, “As the week has gone on, it’s felt weirder in my opinion.”
“I’m into it,” the 2017 PGA champion said, “and it’s a little bit more competitive honestly than I thought it would be. I thought it was going to be very odd.” He added: “I’d say it’s more peaceful because that has maybe a connotation people might not like to hear, but it is — it’s very peaceful out there. It’s just very quiet.”
“Listen, no, this is new to us all,” said Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion. “It’s going to feel different for everybody, but it’s going to feel as rewarding to win. You’re going to have to beat a great field, and it’s going to be a good leader board to contest against, and whoever wins tomorrow is going to have to go out and play some good golf.”
And then, this being golf, the first third round since the world shut down produced its share of that dialect found only in golf.
Reed, for example, languished near the cut line early Friday. Then he shot 10 under over the 27 holes between the turn Friday and the finish Saturday. “Something kind of clicked yesterday in the swing,” he said of the latest contribution to golf’s everlasting mystery, “that kind of allowed me to hit it a little closer and make some putts, and I just kind of ran with it today.”
Spieth surveyed his own 32 going out and 36 coming in and said, “I felt like I actually hit it better on the back than the front but just didn’t make anything.”
Of course. Golf was back with all of its craven needs for self-encouragement, and so Spieth said, “Today was a day where I look at the last couple of years and potentially say that would have been a 2 or 3 over and taken me all the way out of the tournament, and I like the progression I’ve been able to make.”
It’s a progression through the presence of competition — what manna — and it could take Spieth to a win that, in this metroplex from which he hails, would prove popular even if almost no one could cheer it.
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