The Players: Jon Rahm's 64 lifts him one ahead of Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood
Rahm storms home in 30 as Ryder Cup team-mates do well to recover from poor starts
By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 17/03/19 9:08pm
Jon Rahm raced into the 54-hole lead with a stunning back-nine charge as Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood had to dig deep to remain in contention at The Players Championship.
Rahm's inward 30, which included a close-call for an albatross at the 11th, capped an eight-under 64 which swept him into the outright lead ahead of his Ryder Cup team-mates, who recovered from nervy starts to post creditable 70s in cooler, softer conditions for day three at TPC Sawgrass.
Jason Day, the 2016 champion, continued to defy the pain from his back injury as he carded a 68 to get within three of the lead, and the top 11 players are separated by only five shots to set up a potentially epic finish to the PGA Tour's flagship event on Sunday.
McIlroy and Fleetwood had slept on a three-shot lead overnight, but they soon gave encouragement to the chasing pack when both endured a torrid opening hole, with McIlroy duffing a chip en route to a bogey while Fleetwood looked all at sea as he began with an ugly six.
Fleetwood clawed one back at the next to settle his nerves, but McIlroy's touch around the greens again deserted him as he started with back-to-back bogeys before he responded with a 13-foot putt for a welcome birdie at the next.
As the final pair attempted to repair their early damage, Rahm emerged as the leading threat, the Spaniard making three birdies in an outward 34 and, after another gain at the 10th, he drilled a remarkable 243-yard second to three feet at the 11th which he converted for eagle.
Rahm's sharp iron-game was on target again at the 13th, and he just missed out on a second eagle at the 16th before he set up another tap-in for birdie at 17 which saw him claim the outright lead on 15 under par.
The world No 10 settled for a two-putt par from just inside 15 feet at the last to complete an excellent day's work, and he retired to the clubhouse to see if McIlroy and Fleetwood could reel him in over the closing stages of the round.
McIlroy restored parity with his card at the seventh and then hit one of the shots of the day at the short eighth, a towering 238-yard long-iron which rolled to within a few inches of the flag, while Fleetwood hit back from dropped shots at the fourth and seventh with a superb 35-foot putt for birdie on eight.
The pair traded birdies at 11, although that would prove to be the final gain of the day for a frustrated McIlroy, who missed three decent chances to regain a share of the lead while also scrambling a good par at the long 16th after his ambitious second from the pinestraw found the water.
A misread from 10 feet at the last summed up his back nine as he signed for a 70, but Fleetwood was in good spirits having birdied 12, 16 and 17 in a battling back-nine 32 which hauled him back to within one of the leader, who he will partner in Sunday's final round.
Day, who managed only six holes of last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational before heading off for treatment on his ailing back, also bogeyed the first before rolling in three mid-range putts for birdie at the fourth, fifth and eight holes.
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The Australian then followed a run of six pars with further birdies at 15 and 16, while he did well to scramble a par from 12 feet at the last as he closed on 12 under, with Mexico's Abraham Ancer one shot further behind after a 70 blighted by a cold putter.
Dustin Johnson continued his steady progress as he broke 70 for the third day in a row, a four-birdie 69 lifting him to 10 under and two ahead of Justin Rose, whose bid to reclaim the world No 1 ranking from the American stayed alive when he birdied the final three holes to card a 68.
Rose's fellow Englishman, Eddie Pepperell, also fired a 68 as he again impressed on his first appearance in the event, but Ian Poulter tumbled out of the top-20 after a torrid 75 which featured five birdies, five bogeys and a triple-bogey seven at the fourth.
Ireland's Seamus Power posted the third hole-in-one of the week at the third before going on to card a 73, while Tiger Woods will be playing for pride on Sunday after he was unable to take advantage of a "gettable" golf course early in the day.
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Woods stumbled to the turn in 39 before battling back with three birdies after the turn to salvage a 72 which left him on three under, and 12 adrift of the man who beat him on the final day of last year's Ryder Cup.