Alexander: Veteran Jon Rahm, rookie Davis Thompson share La Quinta lead

LA QUINTA — Things aren’t always as they might seem.

From a distance – meaning, in this case, the distance between your chair and your TV set or tablet or whatever you were using to view Saturday’s third round of The American Express – Jon Rahm seemed to be having all kinds of difficulty sinking putts toward the end of an otherwise impressive round.

Rahm, who entered the day two shots behind Davis Thompson at the top of the leaderboard, gobbled up that margin before the rookie from Georgia had even teed off and was up two shots through the front nine on the Pete Dye Stadium Course at PGA West. But while he shot another solid 65, putts were coming up short or sliding by the hole on the back nine, and by the end of the day the two were tied for the lead.

Rahm missed a 27-footer for birdie at 11, ending a streak of five consecutive birdies or better on par-5s. He slammed in a 25-footer for birdie at 12 to go to 24-under, but missed a 14-footer for birdie at 13, had a 7-footer lip out on 14, left a 20-footer for birdie short on 15, slid a 6-footer for birdie wide left on 16, was wide left with a 30-footer for birdie on 17 and then had a 5-footer for par hit the lip and stay out for his first bogey in 45 holes. And then he had a 17-footer go wide left again for birdie on 18.

That’s seven shots, plus a missed 7-footer on the first hole of the day. If Rahm makes four of them, he matches the tournament record for 54 holes, set by Patrick Reed and his 27-under 189 in 2014).

But that’s golf. And, Rahm suggested afterward, maybe we’re reading too much into it.

(Bad pun, but stay with me.)

“I feel like you guys always try to look for something that’s just not there,” he said. “(On) 13, great roll. 14, great roll. 15, great roll. 16, misread. 17, misread. That’s it. Very simple. All of them good strokes. I can tell you there were earlier putts that weren’t as good as some of those and went in dead center. That’s just golf. I mean, if that isn’t a description of golf, I don’t know what is. Felt really good on a lot of ’em. It is what it is.

“… On TV, they love to say, ‘Oh, he mis-hit it. He pulled it. He pushed it.’ It’s not always that. Sometimes we misread the breaks, and that’s what happened to me.”

Anyway, we should put things in perspective. Rahm is right there going into the final day, armed for a final-round pairing with Thompson, because he’s consistently put himself in position to make birdies in a tournament where even making lots of birdies doesn’t mean you won’t miss the cut.

Saturday’s cut line was 10-under, and 74 players bettered par but won’t be playing Sunday, including former champions Bill Haas, Jason Dufner, Adam Long, Jhonattan Vegas and Charley Hoffman.

“Listen, I’ve enjoyed two and a half days of making pretty much everything I looked at,” Rahm said. “I’m glad that if I’m going to have a cold stretch of putts it was today, not tomorrow. Hopefully tomorrow I can just keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

Rahm and Thompson separated themselves only slightly from the pack. By the end of Saturday afternoon, 12 others were within six shots of the lead. And that includes Dylan Wu, who didn’t know for sure he’d be in this tournament until Monday, but is among the pack at 17-under after shooting a 61 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course.

“I tried to keep my head down because, I mean, shooting 5-, 6-, 7-under is kind of the norm out there today when there’s not much wind,” Wu said.

If conditions are as placid Sunday as they were Saturday, it really will be a shootout. (But that is a significant if, as we’ll explain.)

“I’ll be surprised if I’m teeing off tomorrow tied for the lead or with the lead,” Rahm said, speaking while Thompson still had five holes to finish. “The way Davis is playing I’m pretty sure he’s going to get a couple coming in and I’m maybe a couple back.”

Actually, Thompson bogeyed 14 but birdied 16 to get to 23-under.

Davis Thompson reacts after missing a putt on the the 18th green during the American Express golf tournament Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, on the Pete Dye Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“I feel like I don’t have anything to lose in my rookie year, (so) just kind of freewheel it,” Thompson said. “But I’m excited to play with Jon. He’s obviously a top-five player in the world. He’s very good. But I’m excited about the challenge and just looking forward to tomorrow.”

And, as Rahm noted, whatever happened Saturday “doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to have to go out there – and if we get this weather again I’m going to have to shoot most likely 66 or lower to have a good chance to win. But that’s the challenge. It is what it is. The level of talent of this tour is only increasing. It’s showing with this, with the scores we’re shooting in those tournaments that for a long time we’ve shot low scores at but not this low.”

Saturday was an utterly still day, making it “as easy as this golf course is going to play,” Rahm said. He chuckled a bit when I mentioned my theory that when the wind turbines along the 10 aren’t moving on the way to the course, there will be even more birdies than usual.

“It’s not like we usually have that much wind out here,” he said. “You have a little bit. But I know – I’ve heard some stories in the past that some of those golf courses can show some teeth if the wind’s blowing 15 or 20. But I haven’t seen it yet. If it does, I mean you still need to come out here and post a score because somebody always does.”

There’s some irony that Rahm mentioned that, given that he was later asked to comment on 55-year-old Steve Stricker’s 12-under 60 Friday in a Champions Tour event in Hawaii.

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It was in this tournament in 2009 that Stricker shot a record 33-under for four rounds … but the tournament was then a 90-hole format, and that Sunday the wind blew so fiercely that whitecaps formed on the lake between the 10th and 18th holes at the Palmer Private course across the street. Stricker still held a share of the lead when he went to 10, but the gusts blew his tee shot out of bounds, his second shot went in the water and his third found a fairway bunker. The wind-aided quadruple bogey took him out of the running, with Pat Perez winning the tournament.

Moral of the story? This is golf. Never assume anything. And there’s most definitely life after a quadruple bogey.

jalexander@scng.com

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