The Zozo Championship ought to be renamed The Shootout at Sherwood. On another overcast, windless day with soft conditions, the Zozo at Sherwood Country Club continued to be a birdie-fest. The scores through 54 holes look like the Bob Hope Desert Classic. As Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee put it, “It’s like these guys are in a 100-meter race and everybody’s running downhill.”
Justin Thomas sprinted to the lead on Friday and while he didn’t have his best stuff on Moving Day, he birdied two of the last three holes to fire 5-under 67 and maintain a one-stroke lead over Jon Rahm.
“It was a good fight, hung in there well,” Thomas said. “To shoot a round like that is huge on a course like this. Usually I’m grinding to shoot a 1, 2, 3 under, but here at Sherwood the scores are very low and you need to be able to, as crazy as it is, shoot 5 under to keep pace.”
Thomas was coasting along early with birdies at his first two holes, but a bogey at eight and a couple wild shots, including one he hit off the cart path at No. 13, allowed the chasers to catch and pass Thomas. As Thomas will be the first to attest, you have to keep playing offense at Sherwood.
“You literally can birdie every single hole out here,” he said. “if you’re playing well, you can really get after it.”
Thomas, No.3 in the world, is in position to claim his 14th PGA Tour title this week because his putting stroke may have never looked better. He started working with putting coach John Graham ahead of the U.S. Open in September and this week he ranks third in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting. At 17, Thomas drained a 28-foot birdie putt to improve to 19 under and claim the 54-hole lead. But Thomas, who has closed out eight of his previous 13 54-hole leads on the Tour, knows he will need to go low on Sunday if he expects to hoist the trophy this week.
“It’s a course where you can shoot 61, 62, 63 so I can’t go out and protect the lead, I have to build it,” he said.
Especially with the World No. 2 breathing down his neck. Rahm charged up the leaderboard early playing his first seven holes in 6-under par. Rahm sank a pair of 17-foot putts on the first two holes, the latter for eagle, and he was off to the races.
“Just one dropped and it’s like OK, it’s possible to make putts and just keep going,” he said. “The last five and a half rounds my putter was absolutely cold, didn’t make anything at all. And I think the stats are there to back me up because last week I was, I think, bottom five putting and up to yesterday before getting to the back nine I was probably in bottom 10 percent. It was that putt on 11, that 20-footer for eagle that I made just kind of freed me up a little bit, made a couple more putts. And then today those putts on 1 and 2 were really helpful, obviously were key to good momentum and got confidence going. Nothing technical at all, though.”
And while the idea of World Nos. 2 and 3 trading birdies on Sunday is quite appealing, don’t rule out a spoiler such as Lanto Griffin, No. 59 in the world, who trails by two strokes after shooting 68. Griffin notched his maiden Tour title last year at the Houston Open and came out guns blazing on Saturday, making birdie at his first four holes. He had a share of the lead until he bogeyed two of his final four holes. He said he will try to draw on his experience of chasing victory in Houston last year, but conceded the bar has been raised.
“Playing against Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas is different. It’s a different field, there’s no way around it, so I’m going to have to play really well tomorrow, I’m aware of that,” he said. “But it’s fun. This is what I dreamed about, position I dreamed about being in my whole life. From being on mini tours, the Korn Ferry Tour, now to be here playing with the best players in the world in the final group, it’s a lot of fun.”
Others are lurking including Patrick Cantlay, who is the only player in the field bogey-free through 54 holes, and is part of a trio of players three back.
“It will be a little bit of a shootout, and hopefully around here you can get off to a quick start, so that’s the plan for tomorrow and try and make as many birdies as I can,” Cantlay said.
Another half dozen players including Bubba Watson and Scottie Scheffler, the last player to shoot 59 on Tour, are lurking four behind. With birdies being made in bunches, no lead is safe, said Thomas, who has failed to convert his last two 54-hole leads.
“It’s really tough,” he said of sleeping on the lead. “It doesn’t matter how big the lead is.”