All week long at the BMW Championship in Owings Mills, Md., PGA Tour professionals have made golf look like an easy game. They’ve made Caves Valley Golf Club, a 7,500-yard bear of a course, look like a pushover.
Golf, however, is a fickle game. It can bite anybody at any time. Even those pros.
Bryson DeChambeau stood in the 12th fairway Saturday, Aug. 28, playing absolutely unconscious golf. After shooting a 12-under par 60 the day before, he was 7-under through 11 holes and led the tournament by four shots. One muddy golf ball and one bad swing was all it took — DeChambeau sliced his approach shot into the water en route to a bogey, then suffered a cataclysmic double bogey at the 13th. Suddenly, he had dropped three shots in two holes and lost five strokes to new leader Patrick Cantlay.
DeChambeau and Cantlay now share the 54-hole co-lead at 21-under par through three rounds. Sungjae Im sits solo third at 18-under, and four players — Rory McIlroy, Sam Burns, Abraham Ancer and Sergio Garcia — are tied for fourth at minus-17. World No. 1 Jon Rahm lurks at minus-16.
This week at Caves Valley has served as a reminder that what challenges most golfers is often an afterthought to professionals. The course is long, the rough is thick, the greens are fast and water is in play throughout the back nine. And yet, the field scoring average is 69.45 on a par-72 golf course. Only four of 69 players are over par through three rounds. After six inches of rain in the week leading up to the tournament, the course is playing incredibly soft. This means players can fire right at pins and not worry about the bounce. It means risk-reward holes (of which Caves has plenty) become almost all reward.
For the players at the top of this leaderboard, even bogeys have been few and far between. Rahm was bogey-free and 15-under in his first 35 holes this week. As the final group reached the 12th hole Saturday, Cantlay had made 18 birdies, an eagle and just one bogey in his previous 38 holes. DeChambeau had made 14 birdies, three eagles and no bogeys in his last 30.
That’s what made DeChambeau’s mini-implosion so surprising. Mistakes like that simply weren’t being made out there. He claims he made perfect swings both times, only to be betrayed by some mud on the 12th and misjudge the wind on the 13th. DeChambeau bounced back with a birdie at No. 14 to tie Cantlay at 21-under, then bogeyed the 15th before both players birdied the par-5 16th. At the 18th, Cantlay was unable to recover from an errant tee shot and made his lone bogey of the day, settling for a 66.
With the two co-leaders three shots clear of third-place Im, Data Golf says there’s a 79.8 percent chance the tournament winner comes from Sunday’s final pairing (DeChambeau 41.6 percent, Cantlay 38.2 percent). It’s worth noting, though, that no 54-hole leader has closed the door on the PGA Tour in any of the last 14 events — the last, amazingly, was Phil Mickelson at the PGA Championship. And the chasing group is full of all-world talents who can easily make a run at the leaders.
The BMW Championship might look like a two-horse race after 54 holes. But the events of this third round are a prescient reminder that, in golf, everything can change in a flash.
Three Notes From Saturday:
1. One of the bigger-picture storylines at this week’s tournament is the chase for Ryder Cup spots. The six automatic qualifiers for the U.S. team will be locked in after this event, with six captain’s picks to come after next weekend. Five of the six qualifying spots are already locked in, but there’s a tight race for the sixth. Cantlay needs a win to claim it.
Tony Finau took the sixth spot with his win at last week’s Northern Trust, with Xander Schauffele narrowly behind. Cantlay, Jordan Spieth, Harris English and Daniel Berger all had a chance to clinch the spot with a victory. While most — if not all — of these players are still likely captain’s picks, Cantlay would love to leave nothing to chance.
2. Rahm, who has played spectacular golf all summer and was a +139 betting favorite at the conclusion of play Friday, curiously slipped backwards on Saturday’s second nine. Through 10 holes, he and Cantlay were tied for second at 18-under, and Rahm’s birdie at the 12th moved him to 19-under. But he bogeyed the 13th, 14th and 18th holes to fall all the way to solo eighth place at minus-16.
A five-shot deficit is far from insurmountable, but it doesn’t help that Rahm will be chasing seven players in all. He’ll likely need something in the low 60s and a fair dose of help if he is to defend his tournament title.
3. For the majority of the field this week, Sunday’s round will be the last of their PGA Tour season. Only the top 30 in FedEx Cup points advance to next week’s Tour Championship, 25 of which are already locked up. McIlroy, who entered the week 28th in the standings, has a 100 percent chance of advancing, per Data Golf. Billy Horschel is tied for 64th but still appears likely to advance. But there’s sure to be drama in this department Sunday.
Among players in the mix, Garcia and Hudson Swafford are two on the bubble. A bit further down the board, K.H. Lee, Alex Noren and Erik van Rooyen will need to blitz the course Sunday to have a chance. Then there’s Patrick Reed, the lone qualified player not in the field — he was hospitalized this week for bilateral pneumonia. Reed is 26th in the standings and, at this moment, still projected 30th. It’s unclear if he’d even be able to tee it up in Atlanta, but there are no alternates in the playoffs. The players will have to earn their spots on the course.
Photo Credit: Stan Badz/PGA TOUR