Rookie Shawn Stefani will have Padraig Harrington and Phil Mickelson waiting eagerly for him to slip up after the multiple major winners shot third rounds 65s to move into the mix in the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis.
Stefani made four birdies in his first 10 holes to surge into the lead then made a quadruple bogey seven at the par-three 11th before firing four birdies in his last five holes - incuding three in a row to finish - for a 66 and a one shot lead over Harris English (69) on 12 under par.
Mickelson’s 65 left him five adrift in joint sixth on seven under but Harrington will be more than pleased with his eight birdie round which came courtesy of some vintage putting just days before the start of the US Open at Merion.
The Dubliner had 14 single putts nd just one three putt for a total of 23 - easily his best performance on the greens since he switched to the belly putter at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte a month ago.
Without a PGA Tour win since the most recent of his three major wins in the 2008 US PGA, Harrington’s form with the blade bodes well for the second major of the season.
As for the final round in Memphis, he will need help from the leaders if he is to go to Merion with a win under his belt.
But if we are to judge by the way he came back from his quadruple bogey, where he found water off the tee and then plugged in a bunker, Stefani might not fold so easily.
“I feel like I hit one bad shot on 11, and that was the putt that I missed for a triple,” Stefani said with a grin. “I know that sounds crazy, but you know I hit the club that I wanted to hit. Unfortunately, was the wrong club at the wrong time.”
After missing a 15 footer at the first, Harrington holed a 15 footer for birdie at the second and an eight footer for birdie at the par-five third.
He three-putted the fifth from 25 feet for bogey, knocking his birdie putt eight feet past, but bounced back straight away with with a 158-yard approach setting up a birdie from just eight feet at the sixth.
A five foot par save at the seventh kept his round going and while another chance from 15 feet failed to drop at the eighth, he hit his approach to three feet at the ninth to turn in 32.
Harrington then rolled hom a 27 footer at the 11th and a nine footer at the 13th to get to five under for the day and move right into contention on six under.
While he bogeyed the 15th it could have been worse after he missed the green well to the left and had to hole a six footer to drop just one shot.
He then birdie the par-five 16th from four feet and followed a bogey at the 17th, where he was bunkered in three and had to hole a six footer again to limit the damage to just a bogey, with a brilliant birdie from nine feet at the tough 18th.
Harrington loves the TPC Southwind course, which bodes well for his chances of carding a score that might give the leaders food for though.
Mickelson feels the same.
“I feel like I’m playing well enough where I can go out and shoot a low round tomorrow,” Mickelson said. “I expect the course to play different tomorrow than it did today. Today was set up for moving day. The tees were up, the pins were in easy spots, no wind. … I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s final round.”
Harrington was understandably delighted to attack so well when he got the ball in play. Needless to say, he was doing handstands about his putting.
“I decided after yesterday I needed to be a bit more aggressive with my iron play, and when I did get it in play, I hit some irons pretty close. Obviously the big difference was I holed putts all day….
“Those were the two biggest putts of the day. I holed two 8-footers for bogey. Those are things that kill your round if you miss those. I’m still putting like — I think I made two bogies out there. I was — it was on 15 and 17. I walked to the next tee thinking in great mood. They were as good as I was going to make….”
Four weeks after moving to the belly putter, he sees signs of progress:
“My game is definitely on the up. There’s no doubt about it. I feel like I’m better in control of my — of my game, of my swing, and short game is sharp and the putting, which has been my Achilles heel over last year. Since I’ve gone to the belly putter has definitely improved.
“I’d like to see a little bit of sustainability because I’ve had a few good weeks this year and never followed it up with two, three good weeks. So hopefully I’ll get it right and keep it.”
Win or lose today, his attitude to tough courses that force you to think bodes well for the US Open at Merion next week:
“The course suits me. I like the golf course where I don’t know what’s going to win this year, but several times it’s been less than 10-under par. And I like tough golf courses where you got to really think about what you’re doing and, you know, that kind of suits my style of play.”