Ryan Palmer was more concerned whether his fairway metal would clear hazard on the 18th hole than why a PGA Tour rules official wanted to meet with him after his third round Saturday of the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
Both worked out fine.
The shot, struck a little thin with a low flight, narrowly carried the thick native grass, bounded onto the green of the par-5 closing hole at Kapalua and settled 12 feet below the hole for an eagle putt. He two-putted for birdie and a 9-under 64, the low score of the week and good for a share of the lead with Harris English.
As for the rules? Palmer was seen tamping a divot with his foot as his muffed chip on the ninth hole was rolling back toward the fairway. The ball was a few paces away from the divot and was never going to stop in that area. With no intent to improve his lie, there was no penalty.
Palmer said he stepped on the divot out of disgust for hitting the wrong club.
“The ball wasn’t even going to be close to where I was at,” he said.
English wasn’t so fortunate, at least on his shot. He tried to hammer a 4-iron from a downhill lie toward the right side of the green, turned it over and it landed 15 feet short of clearing the hazard. Bogey-free since the seventh hole on Thursday, he was looking at a big number.
And then a marshal found it.
“I don’t like the lottery much, but pretty lucky there,” English said.
He hacked out to 80 feet away – otherwise, he would have had to go back 200-plus yards – and two putts later had a 67 and remained tied with Palmer at 21-under 198.
They were one shot ahead of Collin Morikawa, who also flirted with trouble on the closing hole at the Plantation. His fairway metal was also aggressive down the left side, the ball was inches away from banging into the pin and it set up a two-putt birdie from the back fringe for a 65.
The third round at Kapalua was all about making birdies to keep from losing ground. Scoring has been exceptionally low, not just by one player but several of them, because of a soft course and little wind.
The top three began to pull away.
Daniel Berger, playing in the final group with English, had a long eagle putt hang on the lip at the 18th and had to settle for birdie and a 67 that left him three shots behind, still in the mix.
Defending champion Justin Thomas finally hit a shot he couldn’t find. Three times this week, he hit it into knee-high native grass and managed to locate the ball and twice saved par. He wasn’t so lucky on the sixth hole, sending it well right and into a deep gorge for a double bogey. Thomas recovered for a 68 and was four back, along with Sungjae Im (67).
Masters champion Dustin Johnson was doing his best to keep pace until his drive on the par-5 15th sailed too far right and into the hazard, leading to a bogey that felt even worse considering it’s a par 5 he can reach in two with an iron. He missed birdie chances coming in and shot 69, seven shots out of the lead.
Xander Schauffele two years ago shot a 62 on the final day to rally from five behind, and such a score is possible in these ideal conditions. But there’s a lot of players to climb, and English hasn’t shown any signs of backing off as he goes for his first victory in just over seven years.
This is his first time going into the final round with a share of the lead since six years ago at Torrey Pines.
Palmer has gone even longer – 11 years since his last individual title on the PGA Tour – and played his best on Saturday. His only big miscue was on the par-5 ninth when he put his second shot in rough left of the green and used the wrong club for a pitch that came up short and rolled down the slope back into the fairway.
He still saved par.
The field for the Tournament of Champions was expanded this year for 2020 winners and anyone who reached the Tour Championship, all because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut the tour down for three months. Both Palmer and English made it to East Lake. Both would like to make their next victory one that assures them a return to Maui.
Right behind them is the PGA champion, Morikawa, going for his third victory in his last 14 tournaments worldwide.