Best buds go low in best ball: Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele open up 5-stroke lead at Zurich Classic

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Threes were wild on the scorecard for Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele at TPC Louisiana on Saturday.

The American duo only had four threes marked on the scorecard on the first nine holes of their third round at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, but one of them was an eagle by Cantlay. He was just getting started as he poured in five back-nine birdies in the best-ball format for a total of 11 3’s on the card. It added up to 12-under 60 and a 54-hole tournament scoring record of 29-under 187 that shattered the previous record by six strokes and helped them open up a five-stroke lead over the South African pair of Branden Grace and Garrick Higgo.

“In a format like today you’re just trying to birdie every single hole,” Cantlay said, and they nearly did just that on the back nine, settling for eight birdies and a lone par at the par-3 14th.

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Cantlay and Schauffele arrived at the first tee to the walk-up music of The Animals hit song, “House of the Rising Sun,” but got off to a sluggish start and were only 2 under through their first six holes thanks to a Schauffele birdie at the second and Cantlay getting on the board at the fifth. But Cantlay heated up quickly, canning a 19-foot eagle at 7.

The back nine was an absolute clinic as they alternated birdies with Schauffele making putts on Nos. 10 and 12 (an 18-footer) and Cantlay at Nos. 11, 13 (from 20 feet) and ramming in a 14-foot birdie putt at 15 that hit the back of the cup. Cantlay broke the even-odd string with a 10-foot birdie putt at 16 and wasn’t done yet, holing a 12-footer at 17.

“It’s a little reminiscent of the way he putted at the BMW when he got on that hot little run,” said PGA Tour Sirius/XM Radio’s Dennis Paulson, referring to Cantlay’s record-setting performance at the BMW Championship en route to the FedEx Cup title. “They haven’t been as long, but they’re going in the middle.”

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Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele fist bump on the 17th hole during the third round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

Schauffele complained at the start of the week that his game hasn’t been up to snuff this season, but he was smiling after a birdie at 18 (even hole so it was his turn) as the duo shot 59 on Thursday and 60 on Saturday in the best-ball format. After the round, Schauffele was asked if he had turned a corner. “Yeah, I did the right thing and I found a really good partner. So yeah, I feel great right now.”

The South African pairing of Grace and Higgo, who weren’t even planning on playing this week, shot 63 with an eagle at 7 but also made a costly bogey at 12.

“The morning after Bourbon Street feels worse than a bogey in this format,” CBS’s Colt Knost said.

Grace was going to sit this week out to be home for his son’s birthday, but he ended up suggesting to Higgo that they both had been playing better than their scores indicated and perhaps they could find something. So far, so good.

Three teams are tied for third a shot farther back, including Sam Burns and Billy Horschel.

“We haven’t played a clean round yet this week, and I think if we do that tomorrow, we give ourselves a chance,” Horschel said.

On Sunday, the format switches back to alternate shot, which is a much tougher format than best-ball, and it could be even tougher if gusting winds expected to reach 25 miles per hour have anything to do with it.

“That’s even more conducive to having a chance to make up those (six) shots a little bit easier,” Horschel said.

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Jason Day plays his shot from the 17th tee during the third round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

But Jason Day, who is playing with fellow Aussie Jason Scrivener and tied for third, knows they are trying to chase down two of the best players in the game and best buds who are very comfortable playing together.

“Patrick and Xander, they’re playing some phenomenal golf, so they’re going to be very difficult to catch and to pass tomorrow,” Day said.

Schauffele, No. 11 in the world, won the Olympic gold medal in men’s golf in August, but his last official PGA Tour victory is the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions in January of that year in Hawaii. He would love nothing more than to hold a trophy again on Sunday.

Cantlay, World No. 4, hasn’t endured much of a drought, having won the Tour Championship in August, but he’s twice been a hard-luck playoff loser this season: at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February and the RBC Heritage last week. He’d like to get out of his recent rut of being close but no cigar.

Given how well Cantlay and Schauffele have teamed so far, it’s not surprising that the game plan for Sunday is simple.

“We’re going to try and do exactly what we did on Friday, which is sort of plot along, play our games, leave each other in good spots, and try and hole some putts,” Cantlay said.

The Team of Cantlay and Schauffele are on target to shatter the tournament 72-hole scoring record as well as aiming to become the event’s first team to win in wire-to-wire fashion. Moreover, their five-stroke margin is the largest after 54 holes in tournament history. But Schauffele, who is winless when holding the 54-hole lead on Tour in four previous attempts, isn’t looking ahead to trying on the winner’s silver belts.

“It’s the third quarter,” he said. “We finished a really good three quarters here and we have one more to go.”