Russell Knox won the battle of the DDF Irish Open winners, finishing a shot in front of Rory McIlroy on day three of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
It was a day that saw Texan, Jordan Spieth sensationally lay waste to the Phoenix event with a tied-career low 10-under par 61, ending the day tied on 18-under par with compatriot Xander Schauffele who signed for a 65.
McIlroy and Knox, along with American Scott Stallings, went into the round in the same group from the 10th tee on the TPC Scottsdale course. Five years ago, McIlroy had beaten Knox down the stretch to win by two shots in front of a delirious home crowd in the 2016 Irish Open at the K Club.
Knox then secured his Irish Open glory two years later with a 72nd hole birdie to force a play-off at Ballyliffin with Kiwi Ryan Fox and then beat a shell-shocked Fox with a birdie putt from virtually the same spot on the 18th green in the play-off. Both Knox and McIlroy were at five-under par heading into the round three in suburban Phoenix and emerged 18 holes later with Knox posting a 69 to move to seven-under and McIlroy a 70 to be at six-under par.
Knox will head to the final round sharing 28th place and McIlroy sharing 36th spot. As a side note, on Thursday 11th February we’ll know whether McIlroy, Knox or Kevin Streelman will be the new chairman of the PGA Tour Players Advisory Committee.
However, the story of Saturday was all about Spieth who put himself in position for a 12th PGA Tour win and a first since 2017. And didn’t Spieth do it in style with 10 brilliant birdies, including three in succession from the 15th hole, in a 10-under par 61 to sit alongside Schauffele at 18-under par.
“I am still certainly not at 100%, not feeling like I have my A-game, but I feel like it’s trending that direction, which gives me a lot of confidence,” said Spieth, whose scoring average heading to Phoenix was 72.058.
“I was in in a pretty kind of low spot after missing the cut last week when I really — I just had a bad back nine and I felt like I was making progress in each round. So to come here in the first round and hit it so poorly but shoot 4-under, I just felt like I had a little space. And then to make the cut and feel like you have Saturday these kind of conditions to make a run, I just felt like I stayed really, really patient and struck the ball well.
“Just tried to hit it to the fat parts of the greens when I was out of position and try and attack when I could. Just felt like I was playing golf better than swinging the golf club, and unfortunately there still needs to be a little bit of both right now. I can’t put 100% into playing golf or I run into some issues I had late in the round, but it’s getting there.”
Spieth had reached World No. 1 in finishing runner-up to Aussie Jason Day in the 2015 PGA Championship and remained atop of the rankings until March the next year. Last in the field this week in Strokes Gained Driving Accuracy but first in Strokes Gained Approach and sixth in Putting, Spieth last played in a final group of the final round with Schauffele at the 2018 The Open Championship
However, since then Spieth has slowly slipped down the rankings to arrive in Phoenix as World No. 92 with victory projected to see Spieth climb back to No. 40. The final group on Sunday will feature three former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year winners; Spieth/2013, Schauffele/2017, Scottie Scheffler/2020 who sits three shots back at 15-under par.
“I have no expectations on the results tomorrow. I really don’t,” said Spieth. “I built some freedom now seeing these results the first few days here to where I feel really good about the path I’m on. I feel good about what the long-term ahead looks like for me. And sometimes that’s been in question. To myself.
“It’s funny, I think the last time I was in the final group of a tournament was with Xander in the 2018 Open Championship. Hopefully we both play a little bit better than that and get a better result than we did then. I didn’t look at a scoreboard today and probably won’t tomorrow. It’s just about going out there and trusting what I’m doing. I know that I’m going to hit some really nice shots that will build confidence and some aren’t going to be the best, and that’s where I am right now. I know I can get the job done based on a round like today.”
Meanwhile, McIlroy’s third round was an uninspiring display of two birdies, at his ninth and 11th holes, with his only bogey coming at his 11th. It’s McIlroy’s first appearance in Phoenix and aside from a second round 67, he’s never really been comfortable on the desert-like course which is in strange contrast for his fondness for Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Despite the crowd down by some 150,000 out of necessity, McIlroy now knows what all the Phoenix fuss is about but it seemingly hasn’t got him excited. One may have a guess, and I am sticking my neck out to say, but this week could be McIlroy’s first and only showing at TPC Scottsdale.
- Full scoring HERE