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16D AGO

Akshay Bhatia in position for first Masters berth and more heading into Sunday at Texas Children's Houston Open

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    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    HOUSTON – At a venue open to anyone, it’s fitting that Sunday will be anyone’s game at the Texas Children’s Houston Open.

    The leaderboard took the vibe of a festival Saturday at Memorial Park Golf Course, with increasingly firm conditions presenting a stout challenge for the jumbled field. A dozen players will enter Sunday’s final round within two strokes of the lead, with five players tied for the lead at 9-under, including world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and four yet to win on TOUR – David Skinns, Stephan Jaeger, Alejandro Tosti and Thomas Detry. Far from a Texas two-step, it’s a Lone Star quintet.

    A trio of players at 8-under, one shot back, includes two players under age 23 (Akshay Bhatia and Nick Dunlap) and last year’s Valspar Championship winner Taylor Moore.

    Tony Finau, who led by two after 36 holes, battled to a third-round 72 and will begin Sunday at 7-under, two off the lead, alongside Max Greyserman, Aaron Rai and Chad Ramey.

    Sunday’s forecast calls for steady winds of 14-18 mph, with gusts that could approach 30 mph. Scheffler is understandably the heavy favorite odds-wise (+140), with Jaeger next at +650.

    But if Saturday told us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Case in point: The par-3 15th hole ranked as the third round’s most difficult, playing just 121 yards but averaging 3.398. The hole yielded three birdies and 25 over-par scores.

    Theatrics could abound Sunday as well. Here are five things to know for the final round of the Texas Children’s Houston Open

    1. Scheffler’s three-peat potential

    Scottie Scheffler’s chase for a third TOUR title in as many starts has been this week’s central storyline at Memorial Park Golf Course. He has done nothing through 54 holes to suggest otherwise.

    Scheffler, 27, rallied from a missed 2-foot bogey putt on his final hole Friday – resulting in an even-par 70 that snapped a TOUR modern-era record streak of 28 consecutive rounds under par – to post 4-under 66 on a difficult Saturday, matching the day’s fourth lowest score. He did so despite a double bogey at the par-3 15th, where his tee shot rolled into the water and he couldn’t get up and down. He rallied with birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 after iron shots of which he was quite proud, relishing the support of his home-state fans.


    Scottie Scheffler’s Round 3 highlights from the Texas Children's


    “It’s a treat to be able to play out here for a living, it really is,” Scheffler said afterward. “I can't emphasize that enough, and to have the support of the fans out here, especially my home state, is really fun.

    “I don't look up very much when I'm playing, I like to do my best to stay kind of in my own little world out there. Sometimes they can be a bit emotional when they're cheering for you really loud … I do my best to stay kind of in the moment and stay present, so I try not to look up too much, but I really do appreciate what they do out there. I really do hear the screams and it's fun to be playing in front of a nice crowd.”

    2. Can someone earn a first Masters berth?

    This week’s winner will earn an invitation to the Masters Tournament in two weeks, and several players in the mix could earn their first tee time at Augusta National Golf Club.

    Four of the five co-leaders (Skinns, Jaeger, Tosti and Detry) have yet to compete in the Masters and are not yet qualified for 2024. None of the four are positioned to qualify via the world top 50 (as of April 1) without a win at Memorial Park, so it’s title-or-bust when it comes to a Masters invite.

    Two of the three players a shot back – Dunlap and Moore – have already qualified for this year’s Masters, but Bhatia is chasing his first Masters berth at age 22, also needing a win.


    Akshay Bhatia rams home 34-footer for birdie at Houston Open


    Of the four players two back into Sunday, just one (Finau) is qualified for this year’s Masters. Three of the four (Max Greyserman, Aaron Rai and Chad Ramey) are seeking their first Masters invite, needing a win as well.

    3. Dunlap chases more history

    After beginning the year as a sophomore at the University of Alabama, Nick Dunlap is one strong round away from his second PGA TOUR title.

    Dunlap, who won The American Express in January as an amateur and turned pro later that week, carded a third-round 63 at Memorial Park to vault 22 spots on the leaderboard. He shares sixth place into Sunday at 8-under, one back of the leading quintet.

    Since Tiger Woods in 1996, only one player (Tom Kim) has won twice on TOUR before age 21. Dunlap is still nine months from his 21st birthday, but he’s playing like a seasoned pro. (It doesn’t hurt that his practice-round partners include the likes of Scheffler, with whom he shared a Tuesday game earlier this week.)

    “It's still new and I still get lost and don't know where to register and don't know where dining is,” Dunlap said of his adjustment to TOUR life. Inside the ropes though, he has acclimated just fine.


    Nick Dunlap’s Round 3 highlights from the Texas Children's


    4. How will Tosti fare after injury?

    PGA TOUR rookie Alejandro Tosti, part of a five-way tie for the 54-hole lead, grinded out a third-round, 2-under 68 despite a troublesome neck/shoulder injury that he suffered overnight, saying afterward that the stress of being in contention perhaps contributed to the aggravation.

    Tosti limited his warmup Saturday, hitting an estimated 50% of his normal pre-round shots, but he overcame a double bogey at the par-3 second hole to make five birdies against one bogey the rest of the way. Two weeks after Scheffler won THE PLAYERS amidst a neck injury, it’s another reminder to beware the injured golfer.

    “I was not able to hit a fade because if I pull my hand or my shoulder up, it was hurting so I couldn't do it,” Tosti said afterward. “I was kind of coming inside, keeping my shoulder under my head and hitting draws all day.

    “I found a way to fight the round and be able to finish under par after that bad start on the second hole. But I'm happy to have this opportunity for tomorrow.”


    Alejandro Tosti’s interview after Round 3 of the Texas Children's


    5. Will the 17th hole play drivable?

    Memorial Park’s par-4 17th hole was renovated prior to this year’s event, with the green complex pushed 30 yards back from the water’s edge to allow for a greater risk-reward proposition from the forward tee.

    To this point in the tournament, the back tee has been used – the hole has played to 417, 391 and 398 yards respectively across the first three rounds (it measures 405 yards on the scorecard, compared to 382 yards previously). Players are now forced to either hit a longer club off the tee (bringing the water right of the fairway more into play) to have a wedge into the green, or to lay back off the tee and face a longer iron into the green.

    No. 17 has played as the fifth most difficult hole this week (4.173), after ranking as the 13th most difficult for last season’s Texas Children’s Houston Open (played in fall 2022).

    Tom Doak, who renovated Memorial Park in 2019, also renovated No. 17 before this year’s event, with the intent of forcing contenders to make a tough decision come Sunday. Playing from a forward tee, the hole could measure around 310 yards. This could be the case Sunday – keep an eye out.

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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