Stefani Leads FESJC

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Memphis, TN–  A huge shadow loomed closely behind the smorgasbord of leaders and contenders Saturday at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, and the galleries at TPC Southwind were antsy – mainly with anticipation of a dramatic Seersucker Sunday finale.

It was all because Phil Mickelson was lurking.

Mickelson isn’t the leader going into the final round of the 56th PGA TOUR event in Memphis, but after a 5-under-par 65 for 203, the World Golf Hall of Fame member was only five shots off the lead after 54 holes.

“I’ve gotten better each day,” said Mickelson, who has shot 71-67 the first two rounds. “I’ve got the ability, hopefully, to shoot that really low round and catch the leaders. It was close to being that round today.”

Gritty rookie Shawn Stefani shot 4-under-par 66 for 198 – 12-under par – for a one-stroke lead over second-round leader Harris English, the former Chattanooga Baylor star who had 69 after starting the day with a two-stroke cushion.

Remarkably, Stefani, who had the lead at 12-under through 10 holes, displayed the composure and patience to overcome a quadruple-bogey 7 at the island No. 11. His bold rally included closing with three consecutive birdies. He fully intends to battle any and all challengers on Sunday.

“I can’t worry about what Phil is doing out there,” said Stefani, 31, who has missed the cut in five of his previous seven starts this year on TOUR. “Phil is Phil. He does what he does and the crowds love him. You know, I even like watching him when I’m not playing.

“I’m just going to go worry about what I’m doing . . . just going to go out and focus on what Shawn is doing.” Tied for third at 202 were two-time TOUR winner Scott Stallings (67) of Knoxville and non-winners Patrick Reed, who tied English for the low round of the week with a 64, and Nicholas Thompson (66).

With 18 holes of regulation remaining in the $5.7 million championship, the primary questions seemed to be: 1, Can the small group of mostly non-winners on TOUR hang on – or possibly surge? 2, Can golf’s loveable big ‘Lefty’ emerge with what would be his 42nd career victory?

“Tomorrow the course will play a lot different than today,” said Michelson, a four-time winner of major championships including three Masters. “Today was designed to go low. The tees are up, the pins are in easy spots. Tomorrow it will be different. It will be longer and the pins tucked.

“It will be difficult to make birdies. If you can make four or five, the leaders have the potential to shoot over-par, especially if we get wind.”

Judging by the size of his galleries, Mickelson, whose 43rd birthday is next Sunday, remained the primary focal point for spectators in the chase for the $1,026,000 first prize and the traditional Seersucker jacket. As often is the case, he provided his customary drama.

Mickelson started with a bogey. Then came a birdie, followed by an eagle on the par-five No. 3 where he reached the green in two and rolled in an 8-foot putt. His rollercoaster round included 6 birdies, 3 bogeys and the eagle. He closed the day with an 8-foot birdie on the par-four 18th, and was the early leader in the clubhouse at 7-under par.

The turning point of his day wasn’t the eagle, he said. The key moment came on the previous hole, where he sank a 20-foot putt from off the green, coming off the bogey at No. 1.

“I was off the green and the putt I hit was pretty quick,” Mickelson said. “It could have gone eight feet past. It ended up catching the middle of the hole and going in. That was every bit as important as the eagle putt. The eagle propelled the round and got me going.”

Stefani’s putting has been a major strength all week. From inside of 10 feet, he was 15 for 16 in the first round, 14 for 14 in the second and 14 for 15 in the third. But post-round questions for the leader mostly involved the quad at the par-three 11th.

Undecided on the tee box whether to hit wedge or 9-iron, he chose the wedge, but his ball found the water.

“I hit the shot very well, but in mid-flight a gust came up and knocked it to the water, and then I just kind of went on from there to make seven,” he said, noting that his next shot plugged in a bunker, and his attempt to blast out was too strong.

“Things happen and you just have to deal with them and move on. You can’t fret about it. You can’t let it bother you. Because if it bothers you out here, you’re toast, and then these guys will run all over you.”

As much as fans seemed to be pulling for Mickelson, the final round presents a huge moment in the determined struggle Stefani has battled to make it to the TOUR.

“I feel like I’m pretty mature for a golfer,” Stefani said. “I don’t have the experience on the PGA TOUR that a lot of these guys do, but I know how to play the game, and I feel like I’ve made the right decisions to better my game.

“I’ve always believed that I could play golf against the best players in the world . . . This is what I’ve worked for my whole life, to be in this position, and tomorrow will be great. I’m looking forward to what I will gain out of tomorrow. Everything will be a gain, no matter what happens.”

Defending champion Dustin Johnson remained within striking distance with 68 for 205. Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington was at 204 after a 65.

Sunday’s tee times will start with John Daly (76-216) going off as a single at 7:02, and English and Stefani completing the lineup at 12:40.