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Chase pack surprises at PLAYERS Championship

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Chase pack surprises at PLAYERS Championship

Scottie Scheffler was a pre-tournament favorite; his closest pursuers, not so much

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – David Lingmerth is an NHL fan with the tree-trunk thighs of a skater or an NFL kicker—his uncle, Goran Lingmerth, briefly held down that job for the Cleveland Browns. David is listed at 5 feet, 7 inches tall, looks shorter than that, and not long ago was a towering figure on the PGA TOUR.

    He tied for second, behind only Tiger Woods, at the 2013 PLAYERS Championship, and won the 2015 Memorial Tournament presented by Workday. He played for Sweden at the 2016 Olympics. His star was on the rise.

    And then it wasn’t. Injuries led to swing flaws, putting woes led to self-doubt, and he went back to the Korn Ferry Tour.

    “It’s been a long road,” said Lingmerth (68, 8 under, six back) after a third round that was marred only by a double bogey on 18 at THE PLAYERS Championship. “I felt like I was close to the peak of the mountain for a while as it relates to my abilities, and I went all the way back down to the bottom it felt like. I didn’t know how to play golf at all was kind of my feeling.”

    With winners ranging from Woods to Craig Perks, THE PLAYERS Championship has forged its reputation in part on playing no favorites. That’s been the story at this PLAYERS, where one guy at the top, Scottie Scheffler (65, 14 under), has taken the game by force over the last 13 months, and the guys around him, well, erm, not so much.

    Scheffler leads by two over Min Woo Lee (66) and is four ahead of Cam Davis (67).

    Tommy Fleetwood (65), Aaron Rai (65), Chad Ramey (68) and Christian Bezuidenhout (69) are five back, while Lingmerth, Tom Hoge (course-record 62) and Sungjae Im (64) are six off the pace.

    Some of the chasers haven’t been doing much, while others have struggled mightily.

    Still others are too young to have made a name for themselves.

    Lee, 24, is a two-time DP World Tour winner who has been best known as the little brother of LPGA star Minjee Lee. But Min Woo finished T26 at The Honda Classic last month, which left him at 50th in the Official World Golf Ranking on Feb. 26. With the top 50 earning a spot in the field at THE PLAYERS, he was in on the number.

    Now he’s making the most of the opportunity, holing out for eagle on the first hole on the way to a third-round 66 Saturday. Even so, he’ll be the decided underdog against Scheffler on Sunday.

    “Hopefully I can take him down tomorrow,” Lee said, “but it would be a big effort.”

    Davis is a one-time TOUR winner whose self-belief soared as a member of the International Presidents Cup Team last fall.

    Rai has just one top-10 finish in 14 starts this season. He’s 92nd in the FedExCup and 128th in the world, but recently closed on a house here and saw that commitment rewarded with good karma Saturday, making a hole-in-one at the 17th hole. He also birdied the 16th and 18th holes for a wild, 4-under finish over his final three holes.

    “I'm sure I will feel a little bit of nerves and a little bit of apprehension,” Rai said of the prospect of chasing his first PGA TOUR title, “but I'm looking forward to it. It's an amazing opportunity.

    “It's my first time here,” he added. “It's great to be here. I'll do my best and we'll see what happens.”

    Fleetwood, 32, finished in the top 20 in the FedExCup in 2018 and ’19, and was surging in 2020. He had the 54-hole lead at The Honda Classic and fought hard, but flared his 5-wood second shot into the water on 18 to lose to Sungjae Im by two.

    Whether it was that shot, the pandemic or just the fickle nature of golf, Fleetwood seemed to lose his mojo. He slipped to 92nd in the FedExCup in ’20 and 137th in ’21. When he captured the DP World Tour’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in November of last year, it broke a three-year win drought.

    “The thing is the standard's so high these days that anytime you're struggling, it’s very, very difficult to build any momentum,” he said after making eight birdies Saturday on a rain-softened course. “It's difficult to keep confidence. The margins are so small, the standards are so high, so when you are struggling, it highlights it even more these days, I think, than ever.”

    Lingmerth can relate. He lives in Ponte Vedra Beach but hasn’t always found a way to qualify for THE PLAYERS since his close call in 2013. He was so disappointed to miss the tournament in 2015 that he left town for the week, going back to Arkansas, where he went to college. His best finish in the FedExCup over the last four seasons is 199th.

    Finally, after dedicated work with his coaches, and developing a broom-like putting grip with a long putter, the results started coming back to him. He still misses cuts, but a T11 at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship, T8 at the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba, and T10 at The Honda Classic have restored confidence.

    “It's really only been probably 10 months since I've felt like I can do this again,” he said. “I can compete, I feel comfortable.”

    For him and the rest of the pack chasing Scheffler, whose five victories since February of last year are unmatched on TOUR, Sunday at THE PLAYERS Championship will put that comfort to the test.

    Cameron Morfit is a Staff Writer for the PGA TOUR. He has covered rodeo, arm-wrestling, and snowmobile hill climb in addition to a lot of golf. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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