The Masters champion, the people’s choice through two weeks of rain-soaked PGA Tour golf in Dallas-Fort Worth, finds himself backed into an uncomfortable corner Sunday at the AT&T Byron Nelson.
Jordan Spieth trails the tournament leader by six strokes in his bid to write a storybook ending to a stellar stretch that began with last month’s victory in Augusta, Ga. The final chapter, for Jordanians who have followed him the last two weeks at the Nelson and the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, came tantalizingly close to unfolding last week in Fort Worth.
But Chris Kirk buried a clutch par putt on the final hole, sealing a one-stroke victory that kept Spieth, 21, out of a Colonial playoff and handed the Dallas resident his third consecutive runner-up finish of the season at a tour event in Texas.
Spieth, understandably, is not ready to concede until his final putt drops in Sunday’s final round at the Four Seasons Resort. But he came close after a third-round 68 did little to help him Saturday, the traditional moving day for pursuers-turned-champions at tour events.
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“Just missed opportunities,” Spieth said, summing up a three-birdie, two-bogey effort. “All in all, I needed a 4-under or more round to stay in the hunt, and it’s unfortunate. I just didn’t have it. I didn’t hit as many fairways and I didn’t take advantage when I had opportunities. Hopefully, I can rally [Sunday], have a clean card with some birdies on it to have a solid finish and give the fans something to cheer about.”
What Spieth needed Saturday was something akin to what Dustin Johnson, the No. 10 player in the World Golf Ranking, delivered during a bogey-free round of 62 that moved him prominently into the title mix.
Johnson has one victory (WGC-Cadillac Championship) and a playoff loss (Northern Trust Open) among his notable finishes since returning from a six-month leave from PGA Tour competition to deal with unexplained “personal challenges.” He left little doubt about the state of his game Saturday as he climbed the leader board in Irving.
One of the tour’s longest hitters, Johnson overpowered a water-logged layout while collecting seven birdies. The last three, at Nos. 11, 16 and 18, came from putts of 4 feet or shorter after booming drives put him in prime scoring position.
As things stand, Johnson (11-under par) looms as the front-runner on the Nelson leader board most likely to deny Spieth (7 under) a hometown triumph when the dust settles at the TPC Las Colinas course. Sure, the lead belongs to Flower Mound’s Steven Bowditch, at 13 under.
But Johnson is the guy with the credentials and momentum that should be most concerning to Spieth, the No. 2 player in the world rankings, and his followers who long to see the hometown hero rally for his first tour title in Texas.
Johnson is the guy who toyed Saturday with a course that has absorbed 9.85 inches of water the past two weeks and played, for a second consecutive round, as a par-69 layout because a flooded fairway at No. 14 shortened a beastly par-4 hole into a toothless par-3.
Johnson laughed after his round when asked if he had another effortless 62 in his final-round arsenal.
“I wish,” Johnson said. “I like the first one. Hopefully, I do it again. We’ll see what happens.”
What we saw Saturday was a player who found 15 of 18 greens in regulation and almost drove the green at the par-4 11th hole, where he posted a tap-in birdie. Johnson one-putted 10 times and needed only 26 putts to complete his round.
“I putted well. I chipped it well,” Johnson said. “When I missed the greens, I got up and down for pars to keep the momentum going. I’ve always liked this golf course. If you’re hitting the ball well, you can make a lot of birdies.”
It also helps if you can fly the ball farther than anyone else off the tee, as Johnson can do, and land it on soggy fairways devoid of meaningful roll.
“This is the first time I’ve played this course when it was soft,” Johnson said. “I’m hitting a lot more drivers off the tee than usual. Wherever the ball flies is where it’s stopping.”
For a power player like Johnson, who leads the PGA Tour in driving distance (316.5-yard average), that’s a huge advantage and one he capitalized on Saturday. It’s an asset he can lead on again in the final round.
“I’m nowhere near in the same league as that,” said Bowditch, who ranks among the tour’s top 25 in driving distance (297.6 avg.) but understands the edge Johnson will have on peers Sunday.
If you’re looking for the guy most likely to deny Spieth his first tour title in Texas, Johnson is the contender to track at TPC Las Colinas.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
-13 Steven Bowditch
-11 Dustin Johnson
-11 Scott Pinckney
-11 Jimmy Walker*
-8 Martin Flores
-7 Jordan Spieth
-7 Zach Johnson
*Note: Three others tied at 11 under