The chase for No. 1, the sudden impossibility of Muirfield Village and Tiger’s health make for an interesting close to the Memorial

  • Previously worked at Indianapolis Star, covering the Indiana Pacers for nine seasons
  • Also covered Vikings for St. Paul Pioneer Press

DUBLIN, Ohio — What a difference a week, some extra-thick grass, more wind and faster greens can make.

All that has happened in the week between the Workday Charity Open and the Memorial Tournament, which were played on the same course. There were 16 players who finished more than 10 shots under part during the Workday Charity Open. There’s currently only one player better than 10-under going into the final round of the Memorial.

But as Jon Rahm proved on Saturday, anything can happen in these tough playing conditions. Here’s a look at several key storylines heading into the final round Sunday:

A new No. 1?

What’s so significant about Rahm currently having a four-stroke lead over Ryan Palmer and Tony Finau?

Rahm will replace Mcllory as the No. 1 ranked player in the world if he wins the tournament and Mcllory finishes worse than a tie for second. Only nine European players have been ranked No. 1 in the world.

“It’s extremely important,” Rahm said. “It’s obviously a big deal. I can’t sit here and not — and try to diminish it and avoid it because it would just be lying to myself because it is a big deal. But it is a consequence of me winning. What’s important to me [on Sunday] is hit good shots, be committed and get the job done. Everything else will be taken care of afterwards.”

Did Finau blow it?

If Finau, who went into the third round tied for the lead, doesn’t come back to win the tournament he’ll know his play on the back nine Saturday started his downward spiral.

He stood at 10 under as he made the turn in the third round. But two double bogeys and a bogey on the back nine could be the reason why he doesn’t win the tournament.

“Ran into some speed bumps on the back nine,” Finau said. “Man, this golf course can get you in a heartbeat. You just try and put your best foot forward every hole, every shot and try and play as well as you can. The greens are firm. There’s enough wind up there to think about. They’re fast. A little disappointed in my finish, but look, I’m in a good position going into [Sunday’s final round]. And it’s going to be tough. I’m probably pretty fortunate to be within a few shots after [Saturday’s third round].”

What about Tiger?

Tiger Woods bounced back from a rough second round that had him on the brink of missing the cut to shooting 1-under 71 in the third round. Woods, whose back was bothering him while warming up Friday, didn’t show any signs of health issues and had a smile on his face for most of the round.

For Woods, getting through four straight days in PGA Tour conditions is important as he ramps up in anticipation of next month’s PGA Championship.

“Obviously you can tell that (the back is) affecting him a little bit more because his speed is way down, and when your speed is way down and you’re trying to compete against the best players in the world — I saw him hit a wood and it was 145-mile-an-hour ball speed,” Jason Day said.

“When is the last time you’ve ever seen Tiger do that? And when you’re trying to do that and compete against the best players in the world, it’s very difficult to do. Long story short, it’s good to see him out playing again. I hope that his back comes along so that he can actually start hitting it a little bit harder and being a little bit more competitive in his mind because I know that he’s probably frustrated with it.”

Day in the mix despite bad back and all

Day is tied for fifth, seven shots back of Rahm going in to Sunday. But Day, just like Woods on Friday, is dealing with back issues. Day has had to grind it out this weekend to try to stay in contention on his home course. He is a member at Muirfield Village.

After a slow start in the first round — he shot 1-over 73 on Thursday — he’s worked himself into contention despite his balky back.

“I’m just being cautious,” Day said. “I just feel like it could go out at any moment because it just doesn’t feel strong. But I just want to make sure that I — I’ve just got to get through [the final round]. If I get through [Sunday] then I take a week off, then I’m fine.”

So Day knows what Woods feels.

“I sympathize with him pretty much every day,” Day said. “I can understand his pain.”

Challenging course

Are you sure the Memorial isn’t a major? The players think it’s playing like one given the conditions. Muirfield Village is playing hard and fast, a departure from just one week earlier when the Workday Charity Classic, on the same course, played soft and yielded low scores. This week, Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 4 in the world, shot consecutive scores in the 80s and missed the cut. On Saturday, no player in the field went through his round without at least one bogey or worse.

The players have noticed the difference.

“It’s very tough,” Justin Thomas said. “It’s very fair. It rewards good shots and exposes bad ones. You need to control your ball and just can’t make any stupid mistakes. Last week you could short-side yourself and get away with it. Yeah, that’s not the case this week. Some of these greens, No. 16 especially, is absurd. It’s like hitting into concrete. You really, really have to be landing it pretty much exactly where you want, otherwise it’s going to go to a bad place.”

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