It is doubtful that stirring Saturdays are essential as mainstream golf seeks to swat aside the threat from a breakaway tour. Still, they cannot do any harm. As debate rages about whether the sport’s uppermost echelon in current form carries enough appeal, Mexico City provided the backdrop to some timely theatre.
A batch of the world’s best players – Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy – will joust for the first WGC title of 2020. So, too, will Erik van Rooyen as he pursues by far the greatest triumph of his career. When Reed’s desire to switch a controversial narrative, McIlroy’s wish to endorse his position at the summit of the world rankings and Thomas’s quest to atone for a play-off loss here in 2018 are factored in, day four promises to be quite the spectacle.
Thomas held a one-shot lead until dropping a shot on the final green of his third round, meaning parity with Reed at 15 under par, until the 2018 Masters champion slipped to a bogey of his own. Thomas therefore takes the most slender of advantages into day four, with Van Rooyen matching Reed’s 14 under.
Rahm, McIlroy and DeChambeau are next in line at minus 11. Two Englishmen, Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton, are firmly part of this equation, five from the lead. Thomas’s gradual improvement – he has posted a 67, a 66 and a 65 – means he will prove difficult to topple.
Rahm had not been quoted over the first two days of this WGC. How that scenario changed as the inspired Spaniard played his front nine in 30, a number rendered all the more remarkable by the fact he bogeyed the 8th. Better, much better, was to come as Rahm secured a hole-in-one at the 17th. Rahm’s leap for joy clearly caught the attention of his playing partner Danny Willett, who was reduced to hysterics.
The gap wedge shot in question took one large bounce before finding the bottom of the cup. Otherwise the ball seemed destined for the US border.
The world No 3 stood on the 18th tee on 10 under par for his round. Rahm looked immediately rueful about leaving a subsequent birdie putt short but his 61, a course record, represented obvious cause for celebration. Rahm now has a live chance of victory after his lowest 18-hole score as a professional.
“I think a lot of us like to talk sometimes about how unlucky we get, and today was one of those days where I got fortunate,” Rahm admitted. “I hit the right shots, I got the right bounces and I took advantage.
“I’m just really happy that, after the first two days, I’m going to have a legitimate chance without needing to shoot 59 or something like that.”
Early in day three DeChambeau had separated himself from the field. The Californian played the first five holes in four under.
The par-five 6th was to bite DeChambeau; he was lucky to escape with a seven after finding water with his third.
McIlroy, playing one group ahead, also bogeyed the 6th after a bold attempt to find the green in two instead bounded into trouble. The Northern Irishman responded forcefully, courtesy of a two at the 7th. By the time McIlroy picked up shots at the 11th and 12th he was once again firmly in the tournament mix.
McIlroy looked on as Thomas reached 14 under at the 14th, though, moments before he missed a 6ft putt for par. McIlroy’s 68 was three worse than Thomas.
DeChambeau endured struggles in the closing stretch. He played the last six in three over for a level-par 71.
Van Rooyen is the surprise package, which should not by any means infer his chances of victory are remote. In fact, the world No 52 has nothing whatsoever to lose on day four. Not content to rest on his laurels after Friday’s 62, the South African posted a fine 67.
The opportunity – and danger – on offer at this venue mean it would be unwise to discount others inside the top 10. Gary Woodland’s 65 moved him to minus nine, an aggregate matched by Kevin Na and Hideki Matsuyama.