Davis Love III thinks he’s playing as well as he did earlier this year before pulling a rib muscle at Bay Hill. Now the U.S. Ryder Cup captain is eager to see just how much he might do.
Love III shot his third straight 2-under 68 on Saturday to join Nick O’Hern and John Merrick atop the leaderboard at the windy St. Jude Classic. Asked what his first PGA Tour win since 2008 would mean, the 48-year-old Love had a quick answer.
”Be a lot of Ryder Cup points,” Love said.
With a win, Love is projected to jump from 63 into the top 30 in the Ryder Cup standings. Love started off this year excited about how he was playing before injuries slowed him down. He wound up not playing at all for about six weeks after withdrawing on the final day at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in late March before returning at The Players Championship.
Love tied for 16th at the Memorial last week, then played 36 holes in Columbus, Ohio, to qualify for his 23rd U.S. Open. He committed late to play in Memphis, making sure he was healthy enough to use this event as a final tuneup.
Love had three birdies and only one bogey Saturday to match O’Hern and Merrick at 6- under 204, the highest 54-hole lead on tour this year. O’Hern had a 67, and Merrick shot 69. The man with 20 career PGA wins said obviously there’s a lot of pressure and he wants to win. He has only two wins since winning four times in 2003.
”Is it a big huge deal in my career that I have to win this week? No. But when you get up there at the top … the old feeling kicks in. You concentrate better, you focus better and my routines of the day were coming down those last four, five holes. And I missed a couple putts, but I felt like I was right in like old times … focused and playing and enjoying it,” Love said.
”So it would mean a lot to win for sure. Anytime you win out here is important. But it’s fun to be in it.”
Rory McIlroy, who will try to defend his U.S. Open title next week at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, had a one-stroke lead when he teed off. He shot a 2-over 72 in a round that featured six bogeys and four birdies to drop in a tie at 5 under.
Dustin Johnson, making his second start after a 2 1/2-month layoff recovering from back pain, also was in the group at 5 under after a 67 that included a bogey on No. 18. J.B. Holmes was in that knot atop the leaderboard going to No. 18, but hit his tee shot into a bunker and three-putted for a double bogey to finish at 4 under.
Conditions got tougher Saturday as the greens firmed up at the TPC Southwind course along with the wind picking up through the day and gusting up to 23 mph at times. PGA Tour officials already have pushed up tee times Sunday morning and will use threesomes off both tees hoping to squeeze in the final round before thunderstorms expected in the afternoon.
”This course is sneaky,” said Merrick, who had one bogey and two birdies. ”Once the wind starts blowing, the greens get firmer. You don’t need to make a ton of birdies. You need to play smart and make a bunch of pars, kind of grind it out you can move up the leaderboard.”
O’Hern, from Australia, is comfortable playing in the wind. He birdied Nos. 14, 15 and 16 to join the lead pack after he started hitting the ball harder, and now he has a share of the 54-hole lead for the first time in his career.
”Once I realized that, I just started hitting the ball harder and get some speed up I started hitting the ball well again,” O’Hern said.
It was a wild day with eight players having at least a share of the lead at some point starting with McIlroy, who teed off with six just a stroke behind. McIlroy bogeyed two of his first five holes to fall off the pace. He tied Kevin Stadler at 7 under only to bogey No. 9 and fall back again.
Love took advantage of his experience to keep his ball out of the rough, giving himself better chances to score. He said he only hit driver a couple times, instead using his 3-wood or irons for strong tee shots leaving him plenty of wedge shots in hitting 14 of 18 greens.
”I got the right club a bunch,” Love said. ”It was nice to drive it where I could hit sand wedges in. I tore up four golf balls in the front nine hitting 60-degree wedges.”
Love birdied No. 6 after hitting a wedge from 94 yards to 5 feet for his first. He rolled in a 10-footer for birdie on the par-3 11th, and he grabbed a piece of the lead with a 3-foot birdie putt on the par-5 No. 16.
Stadler birdied three of his first six holes and had a 3-stroke lead when he got to 9 under through eight. But he hit his approach on the par-4 ninth into the water fronting the green and bogeyed Nos. 14 and 15. He finished with a 71 and was tied at 5 under.
The leaderboard just kept changing up and down.
When Stadler hit into the water fronting the green at the par-3 No. 14, he wound up with a bogey dropping him into a four-way tie 6 under for the lead. Love made that a five-way tie when he birdied No. 16 just as Stadler yanked his tee shot on No. 15 so left past a cart path he had to take a drop and a penalty stroke on his way to a second straight bogey.
”Couldn’t tell if it was hurting or helping,” Stadler said of wind that made picking the right club challenging. ”It was tough.”
Kevin Kisner had a piece of the lead when he tried chipping onto the green with his third shot on the par-4 17th only to see the ball go only a few feet. That led to bogey.
Divots: Love’s best finish in Memphis is a tie for fourth in 2005. This is his 10th start in this event. … Love has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead 23 times, winning eight of those. The last was in 2003 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. … O’Hern has yet to win on tour, and this is his 166th career start. Only six players have made Memphis their first tour win, with Harrison Frazar doing it last year. … Keegan Bradley’s 7-under total through three rounds at the Northern Trust Open in February had been the highest leading mark prior to this week.