DUBLIN, Ohio — Jon Rahm showed Saturday why he’s such an explosive player, with his clubs.
It just might be what takes him to No. 1 in the world.
Rahm was four shots behind as he played the 12th hole at Muirfield Village. Then, he ran off four straight birdies in firm, fast and scary conditions for a 4-under 68 that gave him a four-shot lead over Tony Finau and Ryan Palmer.
Rahm can go to No. 1 in the world for the first time with a victory Sunday, provided Rory McIlroy is not a runner-up. McIlroy was 10 shots back after a 72, not a bad effort on this day where the course average was 73.07.
Finau provided plenty of help. His start was nearly as good as Rahm’s finish. Finau was bogey-free on the front nine, poured in a 50-foot birdie putt and then easily reached the green on the par-5 11th for a two-putt birdie to reach 12 under.
One swing changed everything.
Finau’s tee shot on the par-3 12th in a swirling wind sailed 15 yards over the green, leaving a downhill chip from thick rough to a green that was yellow and ran toward the water. He left it short, chipped through the green and made double bogey. Finau took another double bogey on the 17th hole with an awkward lie in the rough. He wound up with a 73.
Palmer, who had a share of the lead on the back nine, bogeyed two of his last three holes for a 73.
Rahm was at 12-under 204 as he goes for his fourth PGA Tour victory.
This was a day of patience for everyone, and Rahm could sense it. Muirfield Village is rebuilding all of its greens starting Monday, and tournament officials are not afraid to let the course go to the very edge for the strongest field of the year.
It wasn’t easy to get shots close. It wasn’t easy to hole putts. It wasn’t easy to do anything.
“We haven’t played a major in a while, so this was as close as I thought. … I actually thought that on 18, kind of reading my putt and obviously with no people here it doesn’t feel like a major in that sense, but just the golf course is so perfect,” Justin Thomas said. “It’s fun.”
It wasn’t much fun shooting 40 on the back nine for a 75, taking him out of contention, even with his dad filling in as caddie when his regular got light-headed.
It was the highest average score for the third round at the Memorial since 2012, the last year Tiger Woods won. There won’t be a repeat of that. Woods said he felt better and he played better, posting a 71. He still was 14 shots behind.
That’s what made Rahm’s round so special. The ball kept rolling on the greens, and he realized it was happening to everybody. He dropped only one shot, on the par-3 eighth.
And his finish was simply sublime.
Rahm played in the group in front of Finau and saw him reach the 11th green in two, a sure birdie. His only concern was hitting the green at No. 12, trying to pick up a birdie or two and if had to rally on Sunday, so be it.
He hammered his tee shot 360 yards over the bunker that set up a wedge to 12 feet for birdie on the 13th. He wisely laid up on the 14th, with the tees moved forward to play at 322 yards, and hit wedge to 5 feet for birdie.
Right of the green on the par-5 15th in two, with the green running fast and away from him, he hit a flop-and-run to 3 feet for a third straight birdie. And then he capped it off with a 25-foot birdie putt on the 16th.
Just like that, he had the lead. He’s in control.
Rahm has had a mathematical chance to reach No. 1 ever since golf resumed six weeks ago. He missed the cut at Colonial and finished out of the top 25 in the other three events he played.
Now it’s right there in front of him — 18 holes away from joining Seve Ballesteros as the only Spaniards to reach No. 1 in the world ranking. Also in front of him is a Muirfield Village course that won’t be getting any easier.