JJ Spaun birdied two of the last three holes to shoot a two-under-par 68 for a one-stroke lead after Saturday’s third round of the PGA Tour’s St Jude Championship.
Spaun tapped in to birdie the par-five 16th and holed a 17-foot birdie putt at the 17th then stood alone at the top after Austrian Sepp Straka missed a nine-foot par putt at the 18th at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee.
The 31-year-old American stood on 13-under 197 through 54 holes with Straka on 12 under after shooting 68.
Open champion Cameron Smith of Australia fired 67 to share third on 11 under with Americans Will Zalatoris and Trey Mullinax. Americans Tyler Duncan and Troy Merritt were another stroke adrift.
South African Dylan Frittelli is on eight under after carding a third-round 66 that included six birdies and two bogies.
“I know I’ve got to play better,” Spaun said of the final round. “You look at the names, those guys, Major champions and multiple winners and really hot golfers just playing really good.
“I’m just going to give it all I’ve got and hopefully make some more birdies than I did today.”
The tournament opens the FedEx Cup playoffs, three season-ending events with a winner’s prize of $18-million.
Only 125 players qualified on season points and only the top 70 advance to next week’s BMW Championship, where the 30 qualifiers for the Tour Championship in Atlanta are decided.
Spaun won his first PGA Tour title after 147 tour starts in April at the Texas Open while Straka, who missed six consecutive cuts coming into this week, won his first PGA Tour title in February at the Honda Classic.
Spaun began with nine pars before a bogey at 10, but sank an 11-foot birdie putt at the par-three 11th and overtook Straka with his closing surge.
“It was one of those days where I felt like I was going to get lapped,” Spaun said. “In reality, I was even par and still tied for the lead for the most part. It kind of helped me be OK with being patient.”
After three birdies and two bogeys in the first seven holes, Straka took the lead alone with a 16-foot birdie putt at the 13th and added a six-foot birdie putt at 15 before Spaun overtook him.
“It was a lot of good, a lot of bad, but overall I’m pretty happy,” Straka said. “I hung in there nicely, got up and down a couple of times when I needed to and I was able to convert the few birdies putts I had.”
World No 2 Smith, facing the distraction of reports on a possible jump to LIV Golf after the playoffs, would become world No 1 with a victory.
“That would mean a lot,” Smith said. “That has been one of my goals since the start of the year.”
Zalatoris, chasing his first PGA Tour victory, was a runner-up this year at the PGA Championship and US Open and last year in his Masters debut.
“I felt comfortable in those positions,” he said. “I haven’t gotten a win out of it yet. Eventually we will and hopefully tomorrow is it.”
World No 14 Zalatoris, who turns 26 on Tuesday, has a PGA-high eight top-10 finishes without a victory this season.
Zalatoris split with caddie Ryan Goble last week and new caddie Joel Stock has read his putts the past 36 holes.
“He has been awesome,” Zalatoris said. “Obviously it has paid off.”
Mullinax, who shot 66, won his first PGA Tour title at last month’s Barbasol Championship. He began the week 70th in points, the last spot to advance, but could leap into the top 30.
Duncan, who shot 67, has gone 77 starts without a top-10 finish since his lone PGA victory at the 2019 RSM Classic.
Rickie Fowler found water twice on the way to a quintuple-bogey nine on the 18th hole. He shot 72 to stand on two under, likely dooming his bid to advance in the playoffs.
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