Scottie Scheffler in position to defend, Jon Rahm hot in pursuit and more from moving day at the 2023 WM Phoenix Open

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SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. – Scottie Scheffler is right where he wants to be.

The defending WM Phoenix Open champion didn’t have his best stuff on Saturday, but pieced together a 3-under 68 at TPC Scottsdale to build a two-stroke lead over Spain’s Jon Rahm and Canada’s Nick Taylor. In doing so, he became the first defending champion to hold the 54-hole lead.

“I felt like I’ve been on the outside looking in on Sundays. To be in the final group with a two-shot lead, I believe, is definitely a position I want to be in,” he said.

Scheffler, 26, who was tied for the 36-hole lead, took advantage of a good bounce off a cactus on his tee shot at the second hole and drained a 47-foot birdie putt. His lead grew to as many as three shots, but the 13th, which played as the easiest hole of the day was anything but for Scheffler. His errant drive left at the par 5 cost him his lone bogey of the day and just the second by any of the 66 players to make the cut. He temporarily lost the lead to Xander Schauffele, but Scheffler bounced back at the difficult 14th hole, striking a 5-iron to 4 feet to set up a birdie that righted the ship. He called it the best shot of his round and caddied Ted Scott agreed. “That shot was sick,” he said.

“I didn’t hit it as well today as I hoped to. But still got around in 3 under. Kept the ball in play for the most part. Just kept plugging along. Only one bogey was good today,” Scheffler said.

Scheffler is seeking to be the first to defend his title here since Hideki Matsuyama in 2017 (before that Johnny Miller did so in 1974-75) and his first win since the Masters last April. A victory on Sunday would have an added bonus, as he would also reclaim the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking provided that current World No. 1 Rory Mcilroy finishes outside of solo third (he’s currently T-28).

Rahm bids for hometown title

2023 WM Phoenix Open

2023 WM Phoenix Open

Jon Rahm of Spain plays a second shot on the fifth hole as fans look on during the third round of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on February 11, 2023 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Jon Rahm played his way into the final group on Sunday with three birdies in his final six holes to shoot 68 on Saturday.

As a Scottsdale resident and Arizona State graduate, Rahm is the crowd favorite and was greeted with cheers of “Vamos, Jon!” and “Fork Up!” when he was announced on the first tee.

Rahm made a three-putt bogey at the first hole and needed to rescue pars after poor drives at Nos. 5 and 8 to stay within touch of Scheffler.

“To be even par through 11 was challenging,” he said. “I had to dig deep to make a few putts and keep the round going.”

Rahm could regain the title of World No. 1 with his third PGA Tour title of the year. As well as he’s played historically at the Phoenix Open – he’s never finished worse than T-16 – he’s never had as good a chance as he will have on Sunday.

“I have had good finishes, but I’ve never gone down the stretch into the back nine with a chance to win,” Rahm said. “Hopefully tomorrow I can get off a better start, play a good front nine and go in that back nine with a solid chance of getting it done.”

Taylor the underdog

2023 WM Phoenix Open

2023 WM Phoenix Open

Nick Taylor plays at the 12th hole during round three of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. Mandatory Credit: Diannie Chavez/The Republic

Nick Taylor is the third player in the final grouping with Scheffler, No. 2, and Rahm, No. 3. Taylor’s ranking? He’s No. 223, but he has earned his stripes this week, shooting 4-under 67 on Saturday to improve to 11-under 202.

“They’re obviously amazing players,” said Taylor, who is bidding for his third Tour title. “I’m just going to have to do my own thing tomorrow. Easier said than done. But if I keep playing like I have been playing I think I’ll have a decent chance coming down the stretch. But I can’t really pay attention to what they’re doing. If I get wrapped up in that it’s probably when I would struggle a little bit. I’ve been in a position where I’ve been an underdog, so I just got to keep my head down and keep playing.”

Taylor made birdie at the final two holes to leap into the final group. He ranks seventh in Strokes Gained: Putting this week, and said since switching to the claw grip in the fall, he’s seen improvements on the greens.

“It just gets my fundamentals in a better spot. Got my stroke a lot tighter,” he said. “Just gaining confidence.”

Rahm isn’t the only local resident in the final group. Taylor is a Scottsdale transplant, too, and calls TPC Scottsdale his home course, even if it hasn’t always been good to him during the tournament. He’s never cracked the top 40 in eight previous appearances in the WM Phoenix Open.

“I felt I’ve been building towards this,” he said. “I’ve had a couple nice rounds when I have played here in the last few months to kind of know that I can shoot a nice round. It’s been a bit of work out here, but it’s nice to see the ball going in, too.”

Spieth lurking after special ball-striking exhibition in Round 2

2023 WM Phoenix Open

2023 WM Phoenix Open

Jordan Spieth of the United States walks off the 16th green during the third round of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on February 11, 2023 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Three birdies in his final six holes lifted Jordan Spieth into a share of fourth place and just three shots behind Scheffler heading into the final round.

Spieth posted a 2-under 69, which included a 22-foot birdie putt at the first hole but then his putter went quiet for most of the day. He wasn’t able to follow up his red-hot 8-under 63 in the second round, which spilled over to Saturday morning.

“I made one on 1, and I thought I’m just going to continue what I started with this morning finishing the second round,” he said. “Then played 11 holes or so in 2 over with no birdies. Just felt like I never really had any chances.”

Spieth’s 63 is the low round of the tournament. He hit all 18 greens in regulation, something he’d done only once before in 843 official rounds on the PGA Tour. The other time? The 2013 AT&T National at Congressional Country Club near Washington D.C.  Spieth’s streak was snapped at 23 straight greens in regulation when he missed the green at the sixth hole of his third round.

Spieth said he flew to Phoenix after finishing the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Monday and had a good range session later that day with his coach.

I got in a really good frame of mind for what I was going to work on this week. It probably felt its best Thursday and yesterday. Today as it got hotter I got a little bit loose and a little out of control at times,” Spieth said. “I definitely have seen stuff like that coming. It’s not super surprising to piece that second round together. It builds a lot of confidence, hitting 18 greens. I mean, I made a bogey off a 3-putt. I got four 3-putts in three days. I need to eliminate those tomorrow because the ball striking has been there in those rounds.”

No aces at the par-3 16th

2023 WM Phoenix Open

2023 WM Phoenix Open

The 16th hole during the third round of the 2023 WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports)

There were 66 players that made the cut on Saturday that had a chance to make a hole-in-one at the par-3 16th on Saturday. The tee was moved up, so, the hole played only 128 yards. Still, no one could duplicate the feat of Sam Ryder, who aced the hole on Saturday in last year’s tournament. (Ryder hit it to 15 feet and rolled in the birdie putt this time.)

Adam Hadwin was the last player to play the hole on Saturday and gave it his best shot. His ball stopped 1 foot, 5 inches from the hole, the best shot of the day. That beauty deserved the applause that rained down, but the water bottles and other litter thrown from the crowd was a bit much. Hadwin’s heroics was followed up by Jon Rahm, draining the longest putt of the day, a 41-foot downhill left-to-right breaker that sent the crowd into a frenzy again.

“After Adam hits it close, I’m all the way back there. I’m hoping to make it, but I’m perfectly happy with an easy stress-free 2-putt,” Rahm said. “We felt the chaos going on. I just thought it was best to not give it too much time. I didn’t want to give the crowd too much time to think about throwing anything else. So even through my routine somebody threw a bottle and I just went up and hit it. The break is not going to change. I had the break pretty clear. Felt like the pace was something I was comfortable on. It was one of those things that luckily it went in and I got to enjoy that moment.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek

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