DUBLIN, Ohio – Going by historical precedent and some quick back-of-the-napkin math, plus more than a pinch of fanciful thinking, it appears that, oh, around 44 guys can win the Memorial Tournament on Sunday.
Stay with us here. Because it’s not unusual for a player to rally from six shots back in the final 18 holes to win on the PGA Tour. That’s sort of the established, somewhat realistic deficit that can be overcome. And that is the number of players who are bunched together by that margin through 54 holes at uncompromising Muirfield Village Golf Club.
Due to a combination of some early scoring bursts, late-afternoon fender benders and a horde of modest par breakers, the Memorial leaderboard eschews the notion of social distancing. Atop the mass of humanity is a trio led by one conspicuous occupant—World No. 3 Rory McIlroy. With a careful two-under 70, McIlroy shares the lead at six-under 210 with Si Woo Kim, a winner earlier this year at the Sony Open in Hawaii, and David Lipsky, seeking his maiden PGA Tour title.
Kim had a 71, not bad considering he threw in two double bogeys, while Lipsky was two ahead until he bogeyed the last two holes for 72—no shame in that at Muirfield Village.
“Yeah, just hanging in there. Getting the ball in play off the tee is really important for me,” said McIlroy, who doesn’t have complete grasp of his A-game but is managing it well by throttling back off the tee and keeping big numbers off his card with his short game after he triple-bogeyed the 18th hole on Thursday. “There was a couple of shots out there when I missed the greens that I was sort of looking forward to hit. I think it’s embracing that challenge and embracing the fact that you’re probably not going to hit more than 12 or 13 greens out there. And I think with how my short game’s been this week, it’s something I’ve been able to fall back on, which has been great.”
Did he say “fall back?” For the second week in a row, the lead in relation to par was higher after 54 holes than it had been after 36.
Justin Suh led at eight under come nightfall Friday, but he bludgeoned his first three holes in four over par on the way to 77. That left Hideki Matsuyama, the 2014 Memorial winner, firmly in control. The Japanese star birdied the first two holes to reach nine under, then opened the door to the ensuing mayhem of parity. It wasn’t all his fault; his chronic neck problems flared up on the eighth hole and it wasn’t until the 14th hole before pain medication kicked in. During that period, he dropped six shots to par that included a triple bogey at the par-3 12th.
He recovered a bit for a 75 and is only two back in a tie for ninth with four others, including Patrick Cantlay, a two-time Memorial winner, who shot 74. Also at 212 are Collin Morikawa, the 2020 Workday Charity Open winner at Muirfield Village, who shot 68, and Keegan Bradley, who tied the low round of the tournament with an early 65.
In between, just one behind at 211 were five players, notably World No. 7 Viktor Hovland, who birdied three of his last four to slide in with a 69. Hard to not give some love to Denny McCarthy, who also is one behind after his ridiculous finish. McCarthy, who ranks near the bottom of the field in driving distance, eagled two par-5s and compensated elsewhere the way he always does—with his putter—finishing off a 68 with eight straight one-putt greens. That included four par saves ranging from 10 to 24 feet.
“I don’t need a confidence boost in that area, but it’s nice to when you see ’em consecutively go in like that,” he said. “Kind of needed ’em to keep myself within striking distance of the lead.”
Striking distance got a lot closer by the end of the day. Problem is that he’s got company. A lot of it.