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DETROIT - Through three days of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, Joaquin Niemann has yet to slip up.
Admittedly, he came close during Saturday's third round. An air-mailed wedge shot left him short-sided in a bunker, but he displayed deft touch from the sand and saved par or better for the 50th consecutive hole. He didn't drop a shot coming in, and through three rounds at Detroit Golf Club he remains bogey-free as he looks to win for the second time on the PGA Tour.
Niemann shares the lead at 14 under alongside Troy Merritt, whose third round included a hole-in-one on No. 11 but not much else after that. As a result it's Niemann who is a clear favorite heading into what could be a wide-open final round in the Motor City, with the top 11 players separated by just three shots.
Updated odds to win (via PointsBet Sportsbook)
+200: Joaquin Niemann
+400: Troy Merritt
+600: Cameron Davis
+900: Hank Lebioda
+1600: Jason Kokrak
+2000: Kevin Kisner
+2500: Brandon Hagy
The Chilean has been one of the world's best since January, when he lost playoffs in back-to-back events in Hawaii, and he is long overdue for win No. 2. Given he has yet to drop a single shot this week, the prospect that he'll do much to come back to the pack isn't especially strong. But birdies should be plentiful on this old-school Donald Ross design, which has dried up considerably since early-week rains. Here's a look at three potential challengers who could steal the show from Niemann with some fireworks of their own:
The co-leader (Troy Merritt, +400)
Can Merritt build upon Saturday's ace while learning from last year's mistakes? He started the final round here a year ago T-4, only to fade to a T-8 finish with a closing 71. It'll take something much lower to get the job done tomorrow given the crowded leaderboard, but it's one that Merritt broke free from after jarring an 8-iron on the 11th hole. While he was shaky coming in, making a sloppy par on No. 17 and scrambling to avoid bogey on the home hole, it's an appetizing price for a proven winner who starts the day tied for the lead.
Merritt has won twice on Tour, most recently in 2018, and he has now gone for 68 or better in six of his last seven rounds in Detroit. The low scores put an added emphasis on the greens, and Merritt leads the field this week in SG: Putting. If the putter continues to cooperate, he'll more than hold his own in the final pairing alongside Niemann.
"I think it's going to be a putting contest," said Jason Kokrak. "Troy's a great putter and it's going to take everything I've got in the bag to catch him tomorrow if he continues the pace he's on."
Merritt's SG: Approach numbers were aided by the ace, but still it's a notable jump: after ranking 93rd and 130th with the irons in the first two rounds, he was third in the field on Saturday.
The breakthrough candidate (Cameron Davis, +600)
After Niemann and Merritt, the next three players on the leaderboard (and the only other players teeing off within two shots of the lead) combine for 0 career wins on Tour. Hagy's week is the most surprising, while Lebioda enters with some momentum after a T-5 finish in Connecticut. But the pick of the litter might be Davis, an Aussie with ample promise who is among the strongest ball-strikers in the field this week.
Davis won the Australian Open back in 2017 at age 22, and while that doesn't count as a Tour win it still qualifies as a notable cap. He has put together some solid results this spring, but the pieces appear to be falling in place this week: second in SG: Approach, third in SG: Tee-to-Green. His putting picked up in a big way Saturday, as he has gone from 106th on the greens Thursday to third during Round 3.
"Everything's just sort of in a good place," Davis said. "Everything working together pretty well kind of leads to a little less stress on the golf course, leaving me in better positions. And it's nice to make a couple putts every now and then to keep the momentum going."
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Davis will have a comfortable spot in the penultimate pairing alongside Lebioda, and he won't have to face the task of taking down a star-studded leaderboard. He's got the length to handle the four par-5s at Detroit GC, and his all-around game shows few if any weaknesses heading into the finale.
The lurking veteran (Jason Kokrak, +1600)
Kokrak was one of my top picks at the start of the week, and I'm ready to double down given his three-shot deficit might be half the one he expected to face after walking off the 18th green Saturday. Already with two wins under his belt this season, Kokrak is playing with house money on a course that's reminiscent of the ones he grew up on, and just a few hours from his home near Cleveland.
Kokrak's combination of length off the tee for the par-5s and strong putting is essentially the strategy Niemann has put into play this week, with great success. Kokrak has only solved half the riddle through 54 holes, leading the field in SG: Tee-to-Green but ranking 75th out of 77 players on the greens.
"It's a tree-lined golf course. If you drive it straight you're going to give yourself plenty of opportunities, and I did just that," Kokrak said after a 5-under 67 got him to 11 under.
He closed out his round about the same time Merritt made his ace to get to 15 under, and there was a strong prospect that the lead could be 16 under or lower. Instead he's chasing two guys at 14 under with a less-than-proven trio in between, on a course where he can take dead aim from the very first approach. Kokrak has a lot to play for Sunday - the first three-time winner this season, and potentially making big strides in the Ryder Cup discussion. If he shoots a 71 trying to shoot a 64, life goes on. But he absolutely has the latter in the bag if his putting gets anywhere close to his typical levels, given he ranks second on Tour for the entire season on the greens.
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