SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Sam Ryder’s tweet after he aced the famous par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale may have summed up an unforgettable third round at the WM Phoenix Open.
“Are you not entertained?” Ryder wrote.
The Coliseum-like seating that rings the hole shook with delight after Ryder’s tee shot from 124 yards spun back and found the bottom of the cup for his first ace on the PGA Tour.
“It’s just got to be that, doesn’t it?” Ryder told his caddie, David Pelekoudas, of his choice of a 54-degree wedge.
The 32-year-old Ryder did so 25 years to the day that Tiger Woods memorably aced 16 and raised the roof and was the first hole-in-one at 16 since Francesco Molinari during the third round in 2015.
As many as six different players held or shared the lead on Saturday, but when it was all said and done Sahith Theelgala, a 24-year-old rookie who is playing on a sponsor exemption from The Thunderbirds, the tournament’s host organization, still held the lead. His two-stroke lead after Friday was trimmed in half as he fought back from a sluggish start to shoot 2-under 69 and improve to 14-under 199, and one stroke ahead of defending champion Brooks Koepka.
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“What a day,” Theelgala said. “So many ups and downs, I mean it was wild.”
Indeed, it was. Playing alongside Koepka a four-time major winner, and Xander Schauffele, the gold medalist at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, Theelgala felt a bit like a fish out water and endured a nervy start.
“I was definitely a little bit star struck,” he conceded. “Even on the first tee I’m like, ‘Man, I’m playing with Xander and Brooks? Like, are you kidding me? Like what an opportunity just to see them up close and they’re great dudes and, yeah, pretty crazy.”
Theelgala made a sloppy double bogey at the second hole after his second shot hit the lip of the bunker. At the third, he made a three-putt par and his lead was gone. When Theelgala vented to his caddie, Carl Smith, he gave the young pro that he recruited to play college golf at Pepperdine the pep talk he needed.
“It was real easy for me to get down there and we had a discussion about a couple shots on 2 and he’s just like, ‘Hey dude, you’re playing great, man, like just keep doing what you’re doing and have a good attitude,’” Theelgala said.
He tabbed the 8-foot par putt he canned at the fifth hole as the turning point in the round. That’s when he found his rhythm for the first time. His next four approach shots to finish the front side were all inside nine feet and he converted three of them for birdies to get within a stroke of the lead held by Schauffele.
It had the feel of a repeat of last year’s final-round duel between Koepka, the eventual winner, and Schauffele, who tied for second. Koepka’s putter was hot as he holed 118 feet of putts on Saturday, but his six birdies were canceled out by three bogeys in a round of 68. Koepka continues to thrive on the support of the fans, who are squarely in the corner of the two-time champion of this event.
“I’m pretty sure every year that they’re allowed full fans they just keep breaking a record, breaking a record of most people,” said Koepka, who is bidding to become the seventh player to successfully defend a WM Phoenix Open title. “We’ll see how many people show up tomorrow. But today was wild.”
Schauffele was cruising along at 14 under when he drove into the water at the 11thhole and made double bogey. He found the water again at the par-5 15th when he tugged his second shot and made bogey. He signed for 2-under 69 and is tied for third with reigning FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay (68), Talor Gooch (67) and Scottie Scheffler, who shot the low round of the tournament, a 9-under 62.
Scheffler, who also played in the final group at last year’s tournament, started on the back nine Saturday and lit it up, recording seven threes on the scorecard en route to tying the back-nine record of 29, capped by a 47-foot, 7-inch putt for birdie on No.18. He tacked on two more birdies coming home to post a bogey-free round and is in striking distance for his first Tour title.
But the wildest moment still had to be Ryder’s heroics at 16, which sent the jam-packed stands into a frenzy.
Cleanup in aisle 16 was needed as cans, cups, and other debris covered the green. It led to at least a 15-minute delay in play. Afterwards, Ryder was signing his scorecard when his fellow competitor Brian Harman turned to him and said, “It was in the whole way.”
“Just one of those that kind of looked like it wasn’t a mistake, it just kind of happened, you knew it was going in, like right when it left the club,” Ryder said.
The final round is setting up to be a shootout with Cantlay (No. 4), Schauffele (No. 8), Hideki Matsuyama (No. 10), Scheffler (No. 15), and Koepka (No. 20) within three strokes of the lead. And then there’s Theelgala: world ranking, No. 318. But don’t count him out. He showed he’s a tough competitor by overcoming a jittery start.
“These last couple rounds and last couple days really gave me a lot of confidence to tell me that, hey, I do belong up here,” said Theelgala, who is trying to become the first sponsor invite to win on the Tour since Martin Laird at the 2020 Shriner Children’s Open and just the sixth to do so since 2010.
Theelgala knows he’s playing with house money and he’s just one more round from a life-changing event. That, too, is pretty wild.