Jon Rahm finally got caught on Saturday in the third round of the 2021 Northern Trust at Liberty National, but it took an all-time great round to do it. Rahm (-16) shares the 54-hole lead in the first round of the FedEx Cup Playoffs with Cam Smith (-16) after the latter shot a course record 60 and had a putt on the final hole for what would have been the first 59 of the year (more on that below).
Playing a few hours after Smith, Rahm made his first few big mistakes of the tournament but still shot 67 and is clinging to that co-lead going into a bizarre final few days at Liberty National. Sunday will actually be an off day as the final round got bumped into Monday because of Hurricane Henri's probable landfall in the region Sunday. This will give players a day to regroup before pushing toward the finish line at this event, but it also brings into play the potential of a shortened 54-hole event in which case Rahm and Smith would possibly compete in a playoff at some point early next week.
There are a lot of variables in play here, including an unpredictable hurricane. Fittingly, it is the tempestuous Rahm who has owned this event from start to finish as he tries to touch off what would be his second win of the season and his second FedEx Cup Playoffs win in the last two years.
T1. Jon Rahm, Cam Smith (-16): Smith was spectacular and broke a course record that had been set five times in the last two days. He gained over seven strokes on the field from tee to green and, get this, lost a stroke and a half with his putter over the last 13 holes. That's how pure he was hitting it. He gave himself 13 (!!) looks at birdie from 13 feet or closer on the day. Thirteen! That's how you shoot 60 while having a pretty pedestrian day with the putter. Smith has been terrific of late with top 10s at both the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as well as the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational a few weeks ago, but he'll be going up against the hottest player on the planet on Monday.
Over his last six events, Rahm has faced 868 golfers. He has beaten, tied (or is currently beating or tying) 853 of them (over 98%). This is astonishing. After 48 consecutive holes without a bogey, Rahm finally had a blemish on his card when a "flushed" iron shot (his words) into the par-5 13th came up short in the water and he made double. A bogey at No. 16 was sandwiched by two birdies, and he said he was playing all day as if the last 18 holes will be wiped out and trying to lead at the end of the round. He had a chance. He missed a 12-footer for birdie that would have given him a 66 and the outright lead at 17 under.
The thing that has stood out about Rahm's week is how … normal it's seemed. He's gaining a stroke a round with his putter, which is good but not spectacular. He's losing strokes around the greens. And he's squaring up pretty much everything he looks at. This is kind of just who he is. In the last 20 measured rounds leading into this week, Rahm was gaining 3.03 strokes per round from tee to green. This week, he's gaining 2.83, which means he's actually playing worse this week than he has in his last handful of tournaments. That's terrifying, and it's why he's a +138 favorite to win on Monday.
3. Erik van Rooyen (-15): Van Rooyen was one of those five who shot 62 over the last few days, and his came on the back of an outrageously hot putter on Saturday. It would be surprising if that kept up on Sunday, and he ran down Rahm over the last 36 holes. However, van Rooyen has a lot to play for outside of winning this event. He started this week outside the top 70 in the FedEx Cup standings — which means he would not advance to the BMW Championship next week — but he's played his way into the top 25 as it stands right now, which would be huge for the remainder of the playoffs and his bid to make it to the Tour Championship (top 30 advance after next week's BMW).
T4. Justin Thomas, Tony Finau (-14): Finau lost more strokes than anybody else in the top 10 on Saturday. He actually hit it better than Rahm and scored slightly worse because he made just one putt longer than 5 feet (which is astonishing!). J.T. had a strange back nine in which he gained a ton of momentum early with three birdies in his first four holes before a double bogey stymied his roll. He closed with two birdies in his last three, and could be the biggest threat to Rahm in the last round given how well he's hitting his irons this week.
T6. Shane Lowry, Viktor Hovland, Tom Hoge (-13): Hovland has basically already locked down his spot on the Ryder Cup team, but Lowry — who has had a nice summer — is holding on to the last automatic qualifying spot on the European side. A great finish here on Monday seems like it would basically solidify him for his first Ryder Cup, which would be pretty awesome. He's been flushing it, too. He leads this loaded field in strokes gained on approach shots and came into the week fourth of everyone in the world over his last 20 rounds.