MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Brendon Todd continues to outdistance the field with his brand of small ball at the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
Despite averaging a measly 275 yards off the tee – 77th of 78th in the field this week at TPC Southwind – Todd’s putter has been his sword and savior – he’s 33-for-33 inside five feet – and signed for a 1-under 69 on Saturday to hold a one-stroke lead over Ben An.
“Winning a WGC would be the biggest win of my career and something I’ve been dreaming of doing for a long time,” Todd said.
But the 35-year-old Todd’s path to his third PGA Tour title of the season and a career-defining victory may not be so easy on Sunday as Rickie Fowler and major winners Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen are lurking if Todd falters.
An, a former U.S. Amateur champion and European Tour winner, is the most unheralded of the chasers and despite 17 career top-10 finishes, is still bidding for his first win on the PGA Tour. He peeled off four birdies in a row on the back nine beginning at No. 13 en route to shooting 4-under 66.
Fowler, 31, is one stroke further back after shooting 1-under 69. He chipped in at No. 3, the third time he’s done so this week, and snatched the lead away from Todd, only to relinquish it with a bogey at No. 12. Fowler hasn’t recorded a top-10 finish since the American Express Championship in January, but has played solidly through 54 holes.
“We’re still in it, two back going into tomorrow,” Fowler said. “So, I’m happy with where the game’s at and how I feel and I’m excited for tomorrow, but yeah, a little unfortunate not having the score reflect how I felt I played. So, got that round out of the way and we’ll go have some fun tomorrow.”
Perhaps the most dangerous threat to Todd is the defending champion, Koepka, who won’t give up the trophy without a fight. The four-time major winner doubled the second hole for the second straight day and trailed by as many as seven strokes, but rallied with five birdies in a six-hole stretch starting at the ninth to shoot 68 and trail by three. Koepka, who entered the week ranked No. 155 in the FedEx Cup standings, has found something in his swing. He ranks first in both Strokes Gained: Tee-to-green and Strokes Gained: Approach-the-green.
“I like where it’s at,” Koepka said of his swing. “I think there’s still a little bit of room for improvement just for comfort as far as the changes we made are only five, six days old now. So, every day is getting more and more comfortable.”
Thomas, the FedEx Cup leader who can regain the World No. 1 title with a victory on Sunday, entered the fray with three birdies on his final four holes and is sitting alone in fourth at 8 under.
“I kind of found something those last 12 holes where I really started hitting some good putts and making them with good speed,” Thomas said. “Yeah, it was nice to shoot 4 under on that back nine to give myself somewhat of a chance tomorrow.”
Much the same could be said for Mickelson (66), who is among a four-way tie for sixth with, among others, Oosthuizen (68), a former British Open champion, at 7 under.
All those goliaths of the golf world are lining up behind at Todd, who was ranked No. 795 in the world a year. Todd picked up where he left off with a 15-foot birdie putt at the first hole, but gave the stroke back with a bogey at five. While his putter remained sharp, his tee shots strayed from the fairway and he scrambled for pars at 6 and 7. But he hit his first green in regulation in four holes at the eighth and poured in a 22-foot birdie putt to regain sole possession of the lead. Fowler grabbed a share of it with a 19-foot birdie at 9 and went in front when Todd bogeyed at 10, but it wouldn’t last long. Todd made back-to-back birdies at 12 and 13 and combined with a Fowler bogey, Todd led by two. Just as he started to open up some breathing room, Todd dunked his tee shot at the par-3 14th hole and tossed his hat in disgust.
“It was a swing that was out of rhythm that was a little bit too often today and to know I hit the water there, it made me pretty mad,” he said.
But he salvaged a bogey and a birdie at 16 was offset by a bogey one hole later as he finished with a 54-hole aggregate of 12-under 198. Todd hasn’t had as good a ballstriking week as he did in victories earlier this year at the Bermuda Championship and Mayakoba Championship, but his putter has been a force to be reckoned with: he ranks second in Strokes Gained: putting.
Those previous victories this season didn’t come against fields as deep as the one he’ll have to outlast at TPC Southwind on Sunday. The last time Todd was in a similar position, he failed to convert a 54-hole lead at the Travelers Championship, making a triple-bogey on the back nine that sealed his fate as Dustin Johnson made off with the title.
“What I learned at the Travelers is just you cannot control the result, you can’t control the way you’re going to feel, where the ball’s going to land, if putts are going to go in tomorrow. I think we all – the best players in the world treat each final round like it’s just another day and they just go out there and try to execute and stick to their game and let the results fall as they do,” he said.
But Todd’s track record when he’s playing well enough to get in contention is better than most and as World Golf Hall of Famer Willie Park Jr., once said, “A man who can putt is a match for anyone.”
“I think the best that you can do in the final round is put up birdies because that’s the ammo you need to keep moving up the leaderboard and hold a lead,” Todd said. “Fortunately the golf course gives me a lot of chances. I’ve got some short irons in my hand and I’m putting well.”