Cameron Smith will sleep on the lead for the third consecutive night in Maui at the Tournament of Champions, but he will never forget the stunning head-to-head he engaged in with world No. 1 Jon Rahm today.
Smith played a remarkable back nine of his third round on his way to a 64 to take a share of the lead into the final round at the Kapalua resort in the US PGA TOUR’s first event of the new year, having lead through 18 and 36 holes already.
But Rahm, playing alongside him, shot an even lower 12-under par 61, closing with five consecutive birdies and a nice, two-metre putt at the 18th hole to grab his share of the lead with Smith.
“Watching Jon was pretty intense there on that back nine,” Smith conceded.
“Some of the best golf I think I’ve ever seen, definitely some of the best putting.
“Hopefully we can do much of the same tomorrow and we’ll see what happens.
Such was the magnificence of their golf and the titanic nature of their battle that both men birdied four consecutive holes on the course in Hawaii, from the 14th to the 17th, while Smith’s three-metre roll for another at the 18th burned the hole low and Rahm’s dropped in for a fifth on the trot.
Smith has shot 65-64-64 and at 26-under par, both he and Rahm both have broken Ernie Els’ tournament record for 54 holes. They will duel again tomorrow on the Plantation course.
With a five-shot buffer to the next-best player, American Daniel Berger, and a further shot back to Australian Matt Jones, it seems likely to be a two-man tete-a-tete again.
Despite that, it has been an outstanding week for Australians, with both Jones, Marc Leishman and Cam Davis also on the leaderboard in the $US8.2 million tournament.
Jones made a long putt for eagle at the 18th to close out with a 62 in the third round, and he is tied fourth overall while Leishman shot 65 and is outright seventh. Davis (66 ) is 16-under, also inside the top-10 on debut in this event, which is restricted to US Tour winners from 2021.
“We had a good season last year on the PGA TOUR and we’re starting off this new year with a bit of a
bang by the looks of it,” Jones offered.
Smith hit the ball purely and his putting was world class again, making nine birdies without a blemish, while the Spaniard had 10 birdies and an eagle. Emblematic of their tussle was the 17th hole, where Rahm buried a nine-metre bomb for birdie, then watched Smith repeat the feat from the other side of the green.
Rahm predicted another birdie-fest tomorrow.
“Assuming the conditions are similar again, we’re going to need a low round to win it,” he said. “You can’t just defend the lead. You’re going to have to post a low one.
“So you know, keep it full throttle and make as many birdies as possible because I’d imagine it’s going to take quite a few.”