GOLF

Cameron Smith, aiming for the No. 1 ranking, two strokes back in the FedEx St. Jude Championship

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — British Open champion Cameron Smith has spent all week ignoring questions over reports that he will be the last to leave the PGA Tour for Saudi-funded LIV Golf. His only concern was trying to win the FedEx Cup qualifiers.

Now there’s another advantage at stake: world No. 1.

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Even though JJ Spaun landed a pair of late birdies for a 2-under 68 to keep a one-shot lead over Sepp Straka, and Will Zalatoris entered contention for his first PGA Tour title, Smith is the one who caught everyone’s attention on Saturday in the FedEx St. Jude Championship.

He birdied his last hole for a 67, leaving him among those two shots off the lead and fully aware that a victory takes him to world No. 1.

“That’s probably been one of my goals since the start of the year, is to try and get to that top spot,” Smith said. “Try to drive him away.”

A week that began with a federal judge dealing a blow to LIV Golf by denying the request of three of its players to make the playoffs could very well end with a new No. 1 seemingly heading to the rival series.

Distractions don’t seem to be a problem for the Aussie, and there are plenty of them.

“There have definitely been a few more, but for me, I just try to hit the best shot I can,” Smith said. That’s what I’m here to do is make good golf shots and birdies.”

Spaun birdied two putts on the par-5 16th and birdied an 18-footer on the next hole to claim the 54-hole lead with a 13-under 197. Straka was there with him until he fails to save par from the bunker on the 18th for a 68 which left him one stroke behind.

The two are first-time winners on the PGA Tour this year, and a FedEx Cup playoff win carries even more weight — $2.7 million for the winner and a guaranteed spot at East Lake for the final. of the FedEx Cup.

Zalatoris is equally hungry for victory. He’s been a tough customer at the majors, losing in the PGA Championship playoffs and finishing one at the US Open. He is world No. 14. And he has yet to win on the PGA Tour.

Zalatoris opened with a 71 that put him in such a hole that even his fiancée wanted to know their plans if he didn’t make it to the weekend.

“I said to him, ‘Let’s cross that bridge when he gets there,'” Zalatoris said with a smile. He decided to let his new caddy, Joel Stock, read the putts together in their official second round. Zalatoris shot a 63 and followed with a 65 on Saturday.

He was also two behind, with Trey Mullinax (66).

As for the hunt for the next playoff event, consider Tyler Duncan. He’s No. 118 in the FedEx Cup, and only the top 70 will advance to the BMW Championship next week in Delaware. Duncan had a 67 and was tied for sixth. He was three behind, and even if he doesn’t win, he can move on if he holds his position.

Ryan Palmer had a 32 on the back nine to save a 69 leaving him on the cusp of the top 70 moving forward.

There are 16 players separated by four shots, a group that includes Sam Burns and Tony Finau. A winner in his last two starts, Finau ended his 11-set streak at 68 or less. He bogeyed on the last hole gave him a 69, leaving him four behind.

Nobody stands out like Smith, for so many reasons. Not only is this his first start since being presented at St. Andrews as ‘champion golfer of the year’, the Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday that he has signed with LIV and will join the defectors at the exterior of Boston after the end of the Tour Championship.

Smith firmly refused to talk about it.

“I’m a man of my word and whenever you need to know anything, I’ll be the one to say it,” Smith said Tuesday. That was shortly before a California federal judge denied the request of three LIV golfers to play in the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Yet the Saudi discourse and the disruption of golf are hard to ignore. Palmer was wrapping up his interview and discussing the merits of trying to get into the top 70 and staying in the hunt for the top 30 who would qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake.

Smith was on deck, standing within earshot, about 10 feet away. Palmer grew more passionate about the FedEx Cup playoffs, and that probably wasn’t a coincidence.

“That’s what I love about what we do here. There’s always something to do and there’s always something to play,” Palmer said. “Win every week, get into the top 70, move to East Lake. That’s the good thing about the PGA Tour, there’s a place to go. We don’t just play for the money . It’s awesome.”

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