The Walking Dead showed up at Muirfield Village Golf Club on Saturday and the carnage was as gruesome as it sounds.
Those brave souls who dared tee off during the third round of the Memorial Tournament quickly encountered dying greens, fairways hard as bowling alley lanes and heat indexes in the upper 90s that made sweat, sweat.
“The greens are getting purple,” Kevin Na said, summarizing the ghoulish scene.
All in all, a lovely day to play golf. At least tournament host Jack Nicklaus thought so, as did Memorial leader Jon Rahm, whose 4-under 68 put him four shots ahead of Ryan Palmer and Tony Finau.
Rahm, ranked No. 2 in the world, can pass Rory McIlroy for the top spot if he wins on Sunday and if McIlroy (currently tied for 12th) places worse than a tie for second.
“I played great to be 4 under in those conditions,” said Rahm, who trailed Finau by four shots with six holes to play before rattling off four consecutive birdies on holes 13 through 16 to take control. “Today could be one of the best rounds of golf I’ve played in my life.”
How tough was it out there?
“We were thinking the (Muirfield Village) club champion, the scratch club champion might not break 80 today,” Rahm said, before doubling down. “Four scratch golfers playing a scramble would not break par.”
Strong words, and music to the ears of Nicklaus, the tournament host and course designer.
“We’re getting ideal conditions,” Nicklaus said on the CBS broadcast, adding that Tiger Woods told him the golf course was perfect.
“(Tiger) wishes it was that way every day,” Nicklaus said.
Woods, one of only 20 players among the 74 left to break par by shooting 71, didn’t put it exactly that way, instead pointing out how the tough, dry conditions are what the Golden Bear was hoping for all along.
“It’s going to get to where Jack wanted to have it at the beginning of the week,” Woods said.
Uh, going to get? Can Muirfield Village play any more difficult on Sunday? Yes, if the predicted 15 mph-plus winds arrive on cue, conditions will delightfully deteriorate to the point where the Memorial should name itself as tournament honoree next year.
On a day that saw no bogey-free rounds, Rahm kept his cool – always a challenge for the fiery Spaniard – which he saw as another step in his growth process.
“There’s definitely been moments out there this week where I could have just lost it or maybe in the past I would have gotten more frustrated and changed my game plan,” he said. “Maybe a couple years ago I don’t think I would be here with a four-shot lead right now going into (Sunday.)”
Finau had a four-shot lead until a double bogey at the par-3 12th hole and another at No. 17 dropped him back. He joined second-round co-leader Palmer in shooting 73.
“Ran into some speed bumps on the back nine,” he said. “Man, this golf course can get you in a heartbeat.”
Or half a heartbeat, as it showed on Saturday, when only two players – Rahm and Brendon Todd (68) – went lower than 2 under. The field scoring average of 73.3 was the highest third-round average since 2012 (74.3) and highest overall since 2017 (73.9).
“I’ve got a four-shot deficit that I’m going to try to make up tomorrow in the wind, and I think it’s doable,” he said.
Rahm would not disagree, concluding that “four shots on a windy, difficult, firm golf course is nothing. It’s me making two bogeys and somebody making one birdie and then suddenly it’s only a one-shot lead.”
Palmer shared a one-shot lead with Rahm after 14 holes, but like Finau his game began to go south as the winds began picking up from the west.
“It was hard, let me put it that way,” Palmer said of the course conditions. “The greens were hard and you had to control your ball flight, your distance control. A few greens were getting close to the edge.”
They could go over the cliff on Sunday and Nicklaus would not mind. Muirfield begins rebuilding its greens on Monday, so there is no reason to save them for member play, which means they will be even scarier fast for the final round.
“My mission tomorrow – just go play good golf and hopefully have a good cushion coming down the stretch, especially on 18 so I can just enjoy that walk,” Rahm said.
Note: Rahm can become World No. 1 with a win or solo-second depending on Rory McIlroy’s final position.