THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – These types of sprints aren’t everyone’s brand of vodka.
Consider that Justin Thomas began the day at the Zozo Championship with a one-stroke lead and played his first nine holes in 2 under par. In theory, he knew he shouldn’t have been losing ground, but in practice the leaderboard told a different story.
“I didn't feel like I was losing ground. I mean, I know I was just in terms of like literally I was losing to the leader, like I was not leading anymore and I was behind, so that part was very apparent,” Thomas said.
The combination of soft greens, no wind, friendly fairways and five par-5s means there’s no room for a measured approach – or par – at Sherwood Country Club. As front-runner, Thomas explained, “You literally can birdie every single hole out here.”
No one has done that yet, but it’s starting to feel less and less outlandish as the week wears on. Jon Rahm played his first seven holes in 6 under to move into the hunt, and Lanto Griffin birdied four consecutive holes to start his day. Rahm and Griffin, who are alone in second and third place, respectively, didn’t even come the closest to a clean sweep on Saturday.
That honor went to Phil Mickelson. That’s right, the two-time PGA Tour Champions winner this season played his first eight holes in 7 under, and through 12 holes he had just a single par. Of course, Phil being Phil, he added a bogey and a double bogey to the mix for a perfectly entertaining 67.
But the benchmark is clear: Go low or go home.
For some, that full-sprint mentality comes naturally.
“I don't care what it is if I win. I don't care if we're playing a putt-putt course,” said Thomas, who rebounded from his slow start for a 67 and a one-stroke lead at 19 under. “If my irons and wedge game are how I feel that they should be, I do enjoy it because if I'm putting the ball in play like I did the first two days and like I did a little bit today, I feel like I'm going to give myself a lot of birdie chances.”
For others, it’s an acquired taste.
“Not particularly,” said Ryan Palmer when asked if he likes these kind of track meets. “I'm happy I'm playing well in these kind of tournaments, shooting low numbers, but I enjoy the golf courses where you've got to hit the golf ball and par's good.”
To be clear, par is not a good score this week at Sherwood.
Patrick Reed followed a second-round 63 with a 1-under 71 and tumbled down the board into a tie for 20th. Richy Werenski followed his course-record 61 on Friday with a third-round 72 to fall eight shots off the pace.
Then again, not particularly liking a birdie-fest doesn’t mean a player can’t embrace it. Palmer is tied for fourth place at 16 under with Patrick Cantlay. In this case, going low is an occupational necessity.
“We're so used to it, it seems like every week it's into the 20s [under],” Cantlay said. “I like it when it's hard, I like it when it's like this. The golf course is great. We just had really easy conditions, not a lot of wind and the course is soft. That's expected.”
The low scoring also leads to a predictable gameplan for Sunday. There will be no protecting, and Sherwood, which hosted Tiger Woods’ silly season stop from 2000 to ’13, can still dole out the occasional haymaker despite its soft persona.
“You still have to hit good shots,” said Rahm, who could move back to No. 1 in the world rankings – or he could get bounced back to No. 3 – depending on Sunday’s outcome. “It’s five par-5s, but you have 13 and 16 where they kind of limit you. I can't just bomb a driver and have an iron in, and 13 you have to lay up and have a really long iron like I did today.”
Sunday’s sprint isn’t a perfect fit for either Rahm or Thomas. The Spaniard’s two victories this year came on two of the year’s toughest courses (Memorial and the BMW Championship) while Thomas has historically played his best golf when the margins are the thinnest.
Both, however, will play by Sherwood’s rules. The man with the most birdies wins.