SAN DIEGO — This is the ultimate lineup test on the PGA Tour. If we put the top nine players on the Farmers Insurance Open leaderboard heading into Saturday’s final round side by side and asked even an ardent golf fan to identify them, the success rate would not be pretty. If you knew even a couple of these gentlemen, it’s because you attended their college, or you bet on Korn Ferry and DP World tours, or you hail from Europe, or they’re one of your children.
This is not a rap on their talent. They are among the top 125 golfers on the most talented tour in the world. If they played in the NFL, they would all be starters. But there also are very few weeks on the PGA Tour that shake out quite like this one has at Torrey Pines. Thomas Jaeger, a German-born 34-year-old who speaks with a slight Southern drawl because he went to school and lives in Tennessee, is the sole leader at 11 under par after he shot one-over-par 73 Friday on the brutish South Course. Jaeger has made 128 previous starts on the PGA Tour and has no victories, while in various stints on the KFT, he’s been a menace, notching six wins.
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Considering his experience compared to the competition, Jaeger may be as well positioned as he’s ever been to seize his biggest win, with the eight guys closest to him also looking to lift their first PGA Tour trophy. That group is a cumulative 0-for-191 in tour starts. So, combined with Jaeger’s record, that makes the whole crew winless in 319 appearances.
Anybody feeling hungry? Famished?
The beautiful thing is that one of them is bound to score an enormous victory, and their paths are all wildly different. The top four—with France’s Mattieu Pavon and Denmark’s Nicolai Hojgaard at 10 under, and Belgium’s Thomas Detry alone at nine under—as noted by golf status guru Justin Ray, comprise the first group of Europeans to own the highest four spots after 54 holes in a PGA Tour event since 2000. The rest of the top nine are eight Americans and one Canadian of varying experiences, arguably led by second-year tour member Taylor Montgomery, who got off to a hot start last season and notched five top-10 finishes to eventually place 53rd in the FedEx Cup and reach the playoffs.
Knotted with Montgomery, three shots back, are a trio of rookies—Trace Crowe, Jake Knapp and Joe Highsmith. The other contender is Canadian Taylor Pendrith, who has played 64 times on tour without a win but produced a leaderboard-climbing round of three-under 69 on Friday that vaulted him 31 spots to T-5.
That very circumstance—that the best third-round scores were 68s carded by Will Zalatoris and Ryan Brehm, while only six players, but none of the top four, shot in red figures—seemingly eliminates anybody four shots or farther back, though there are a whopping nine players tied for 10th, including Zalatoris, Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau.
The South Course, host for two U.S. Opens, is once again playing like a major venue, with Friday’s scoring average at 73.54, because rain early in the week prevented the rough, now approaching five inches, from being trimmed after the field was halved by the rare Thursday cut. The bumpy Poa annua greens remain their confounding selves.
Thomas Detry reacts after making a double-bogey 7 on the 18th hole.
Sean M. Haffey
“With all of the rain and obviously the heat the last couple of days, I think the rough is juicier than ever,” Detry said after a double bogey on the par-5 18th, where he found the greenside pond, dropped him from solo first to solo fourth. “I’ve missed the rough left on No. 12, and it’s just impossible to get any sort of look to go for the green. … Obviously, the greens, with being that many players making the cut  and people walking on those greens, and them being soft as well, it’s not easy to make putts out there.”
Detry, 31, who played at Illinois and has one top-5 career finish, suffered two horribly bad breaks in the third round. At the par-3 11th, his ball flew just a couple of yards over the green, but hit a sprinkler head and bounded to 25 yards long. He couldn’t get up and down from there. Then, after making a strong birdie at the par-3 16th, Detry was between clubs, had mud on his ball, and eschewed going for the 18th green in two. He laid up and had 92 yards to the hole, but his wedge shot landed well past the hole and spun back 30 yards into the water. His 7 on the hole gave him a 73 for the day.
Echoing nearly every golfer’s lament, Detry said, “We decided to be smart, and there we go. I got punched in the face.”
None of the contenders have taken more figurative blows to the body than Jaeger. He turned pro in 2012 and four years later shot a stunning 12-under 58—the first to reach that number on the KFT or PGA Tour—and claimed his first victory. There were five more KFT wins, including two in 2020. But each time Jaeger returned to the PGA Tour, he couldn’t pull off a breakthrough. Last season, Jaeger played 33 events and made the cut an impressive 30 times to earn more than $5 million. But he had only two top-10s and didn’t sniff a win.
The analogy has been used before about Jaeger, but it remains apt: He is what baseball calls a “4A” player—a terror in the minors, but a ping hitter in the majors. The question arises: What’s holding him back?
Jaeger, of course, has asked himself that more than anybody.
“There’s a reason some of those guys have been out here a long time,” Jaeger said on Thursday after shooting 64 on the Torrey North Course. “You just try to find every weakness in your game somehow. If it’s mental, or it’s putting, short game, whatever it is, you try to find a weakness that you have that you try to work upon to get better. You’ve also got to try to work on each strength; otherwise, you’re going to lose those. It’s hard.”
In the last couple of years, Jaeger may have done the most work on the space between his ears. The father of a 1-year-old, he meditates every day and finds time to read or listen to podcasts, rather than practice golf incessantly. Last year, Jaeger timed it well by reaching out for help from well-known mental coach Julie Elon, who was working with Wyndham Clark before his June victory in the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club. “I think her phone was probably blowing up pretty hard after he did that,” Jaeger said with a grin.
Jaeger was asked how much he feels like his mental work shows itself on the golf course, and he basically turned the question upside down with a far deeper answer. “Well, not everything I work on is because of the golf course, right? “ he said. “That’s kind of the stigma that we golfers just work on mental stuff because we want to win tournaments. I wanted to be a better husband; I want to be a better father to my child’ I wanted to kind of be a little more mellow. I used to get pretty angry and frustrated. Wanted to kind of start that trend in the right direction.”
Nearly everything, it seems, is trending upwards for Jaeger. Is it asking too much to think a win is the next step?
This article was originally published on golfdigest.com