By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer
DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Cameron Smith believes he is playing the best golf of his life, and it shows. He is in the lead at Memorial, a tournament where the Australian doesn’t have a great history.
Smith elicited one of the loudest cheers of a glorious afternoon Friday at Muirfield Village — another anomaly for this weather-plagued tournament — when he holed out with a downhill chip from beyond the green on the par-3 12th that carried him to a 3-under 69.
He kept his one-shot lead over Denny McCarthy and K.H. Lee the rest of the day by doing what Smith does best. He holed a 15-foot putt for par on the next hole and twice made 6-foot par putts for bunker saves down the stretch.
“I think I’m just happy with the way I stuck in there,” Smith said. “Really happy with where my short game’s at. I feel like I’m rolling the ball really good. Just need to sort out that longer stuff.”
As for his history at the Memorial?
In six previous appearance, Smith only made the cut twice and both times and finished outside the top 60. His best round was a 71.
But this is a new Smith, the winner of The Players Championship and the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the No. 3 player in the world ranking.
So his rounds of 67-69 to reach 8-under 136 and be in the lead going into the weekend is hardly a surprise, even at Muirfield Village.
“I think my game’s in a good spot. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be,” he said. “I’m playing some of the best golf of my life, and I feel I’m getting more consistent with the longer stuff. So just looking forward to everything coming up.”
Billy Horschel putted for birdie on every hole and made four of them for a 68 that left him in the group two shots behind with Torrey Pines winner Luke List, PGA Tour rookies Cameron Young and Davis Riley, and Jhonattan Vegas.
Rory McIlroy had a 69 and was three shots behind. Defending champion Patrick Cantlay closed with two big par putts for a 69 and was at 3-under 141.
The cut was at 2-over 146. Among those missing out on the weekend were Bryson DeChambeau and Harris English, both returning from injuries. DeChambeau (hand surgery) had not played since the Masters. English (hip surgery) had not played since the Sony Open in January.
Also missing the cut were Hudson Swafford, Matt Jones, Jed Morgan of Australia and U.S. Amateur champion James Piot, giving them two extra days to pack for London and the first Saudi-funded LIV Golf Invitational next week that puts PGA Tour membership at risk, at least for Swafford and Jones.
McCarthy’s name was mentioned prominently even before the Memorial began, and then he lived up to the praise. He took only 25 putts Friday — he only had 24 putts the day before — for a 3-under 69 that put him one shot behind.
For those who don’t pore over the litany of statistics available on the PGA Tour, it was a little surprising when McIlroy was asked earlier in the week whom he considered the better putters in today’s game. He mentioned Jordan Spieth. Everyone knows him. He was impressed with Sam Burns, a three-time winner over the last eight months.
And he mentioned McCarthy.
Told of McIlroy’s comments earlier in the week, McCarthy smiled and said, “I would like to drive it like Rory.”
“Everyone has the best part of their game. Obviously, putting is part of mine,” said McCarthy, who is No. 5 in the key putting statistic for the season. “Driving the ball is the best part of his game. I’m no slouch around the course, like putting is not the only thing I do well. Everyone brings up my putter; yes, I’m a good putter. But I need to do good things to get to those putts.”
McIlroy, meanwhile, has been picking up a little momentum since his closing 64 at the Masters for a runner-up finish. He finished four shots behind at the Wells Fargo Championship and three shots out of a playoff at the PGA Championship.
McIlroy surged into the mix at the Memorial with a fairway metal that was high and true and into a freshening breeze to 6 feet for eagle on the par-5 fifth toward the end of his round. His momentum was slowed by a bogey from the bunker on the par-3 eighth, but his 69 left him in reasonable shape going into the weekend.
Jon Rahm overcame a shank on the second hole — he made birdie on the next one — to scratch out a 70 without his best iron game. He was at 2-under 142, six shots behind. Rahm won in 2020. He was six shots ahead after three rounds last year until his positive COVID-19 test knocked him out of the final round.
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