Xander Schauffele grabs lead heading into final round of Players Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Xander Schauffele is unafraid.

He’s unafraid to speak his mind off the golf course — as evidenced by his powerful remarks regarding the division in the sport with LIV Golf and the questionable job PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has been doing, saying Monahan “has a long way to go to gain the players’ trust.’’

Schauffele, too, is unafraid on the golf course, which makes him dangerous and will make him difficult to chase down in the final round of the Players Championship on Sunday at venerable Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

Xander Schauffele, who has a one-shot lead, hits a chip shot on the 11th hole during the third round of the Players Championship. Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

Schauffele began Saturday’s third round — moving day — four shots behind 36-hole leader Wyndham Clark and took dead aim, shooting a 7-under-par 65 to seize a one-shot lead over Clark, who shot a 2-under 70.

This has the 30-year-old Californian on the doorstep of the most significant victory of his career, which already includes seven wins.

Schauffele leads Clark, the reigning U.S. Open champion, by one shot and Brian Harman, the reigning British Open champion who shot an 8-under 64 on Saturday, by two shots.

Maverick McNealy, who has no wins in 121 career PGA Tour starts, is four shots back at 13-under, as is Matthew Fitzpatrick, the 2022 U.S. Open winner.

Scottie Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 ranked player and defending champion of the Players, is five shots behind at 12-under after shooting 68 on Saturday. He’s tied with Sahith Theegala, who shot 67.

It is, indeed, a decorated leaderboard and, with the soft, windless conditions this week, it figures to make Sunday’s final round a full-on shootout.

“Looking at scores, it’s not your average Players Championship,’’ said Harman, who has gone from tied for 75th after the first round to 10th after 36 holes to third entering Sunday. “But it still feels like the fifth major.’’

Wyndham Clark is one shot behind Xander Schauffele heading into the final round of the Players Championship. Getty Images

It will be fascinating to see how Schauffele, who has never won a major championship, handles Sunday. He said after the round he was most proud of the way he “carried’’ himself in the cauldron of pressure Saturday.

“I heard roars all around the property and I really just kind of stayed in my lane,’’ he said.

He said the approach on Sunday will be “probably pretty similar’’ to Saturday. He knows it’s going to be close to the end.

“I know the guys are good out here [and] no one is going to lay over here and play dead,’’ Schauffele said. “It could be low [score required] tomorrow, but for the most part I’m going to try and enjoy myself and stay in my lane,’’ he said. “You want to get to the 18th hole with a six- or seven-shot lead and smiling at your caddie and the crowd.

“I think that’s what we all want when we close our eyes at night and fall asleep, but it’s not always the case.’’

Xander Schauffele (left) shakes hands with Wyndham Clark after both players completed the third round at the Players Championship. Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

Schauffele caught Clark on the 12th hole, where he birdied and Clark parred, leaving them tied at 16-under.

He took a one-shot lead on Clark with a birdie on 14.

Then the day took a dramatic turn for Clark and Schauffele, playing in the final pairing, on the 16th and 17th holes.

Clark tied the lead at 17-under with a birdie on the par-5 16th while Schauffele settled for a par.

And then Clark inexplicably rinsed his tee shot on the par-3 17th hole, leaving his ball some 20 yards short of the famous island green.

He re-teed and made a clutch bogey 4 to minimize the damage, but that left Schauffele with a one-shot lead heading to the 18th tee.

Clark called the swing on 17 a “massive’’ mistake, adding, “But I followed it with a great swing and a great putt. I’m in the final group tomorrow, which is huge. I’m hoping that’s a huge point in the tournament and we look back after tomorrow and look at that hole and say, ‘Hey, that was maybe the shot and the putt that meant it all.’ ”

Clark, who calls Schauffele a friend, said he looks forward to a “fun’’ Sunday with him.

“He has the upper leg right now, and I’m hoping tomorrow I bring it and we can have some fireworks and play some great golf,” Clark said. “He’s so consistent, and obviously you saw today the guy makes a lot of putts. Hopefully, tomorrow he doesn’t make that many putts and I make some putts. I have a lot of respect for Xander’s game. He’s just so steady. He doesn’t really have any flaws.’’

He’s unafraid.

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