22 September 2019: The University of North Texas has since been bypassed by its larger in-state rivals, but the school was once known as the “Notre Dame of golf.” Led by future PGA TOUR winners Billy Maxwell and Don January, it won four consecutive NCAA titles in the middle of the 20th century.
The leaderboard of the Sanderson Farms Championship harkens back to the Mean Green’s glory days. Sunday’s final group is comprised of a pair of former North Texas teammates. They both left homes in Latin America for the opportunity to play college golf in the suburbs of Dallas.
Sebastian Munoz and Carlos Ortiz still live in Texas and hang out together when they’re home. They’re practice-round partners on the PGA TOUR. And now they’ll go head-to-head as they each seek their first PGA TOUR victory.
Playing 36 holes on Saturday, a couple of double bogeys hurt Anirban Lahiri. The Indian is T55 at 3-under, largely down to a 74 in the third round. Arjun Atwal missed the cut.
Munoz, of Colombia, is 16 under par (70-67-63) after three rounds at the Country Club of Jackson. Mexico’s Ortiz is one shot back after shooting 65-71-65.
“I’m going to have a great opportunity tomorrow,” Munoz said. “Just one shot at a time.”
He and Ortiz showed Saturday how comfortable they are together, combining to shoot 16 under par while paired together in the third round.
Munoz’s 63 was one stroke off the Country Club of Jackson’s course record. Ortiz shot 65.
The Sanderson may be held in the heart of SEC country, but a crop of international players has risen to the top of the leaderboard one week after Chile’s Joaquin Niemann won the season-opening event.
“That just validates that any of us can win,” Ortiz said. “Me, Joaquin, Sebastian, we play every practice round together. It’s a guy we know pretty well and he’s winning. It just gives you extra belief that if he can do it, I can do it.”
South Korea’s Byeong Hun An is in third place, two shots off the lead, as he seeks to bolster his Presidents Cup candidacy.
Australia’s Cameron Percy is another stroke back. Percy, who was a victim of Jonathan Byrd’s playoff ace at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open nine years ago, regained his TOUR card after fracturing his wrist earlier this year.
Another South Korean who’s seeking one of Ernie Els’ captain’s picks is in fifth place. Sungjae Im recently won the PGA TOUR’s Rookie of the Year Award. Now he’s trying to win his first PGA TOUR title.
He’s tied for fifth with four Americans: Harris English, J.T. Poston, George McNeill and Dominic Bozelli. They’re all 12 under.
Among the top nine players on the leaderboard, only English, Poston and McNeill have PGA TOUR wins. Poston won last month’s Wyndham Championship, becoming the first player since Lee Trevino to win on TOUR while going bogey-free over 72 holes. It’s been seven years since McNeill won the second of his two PGA TOUR titles. English doesn’t have full status on the PGA TOUR this season, but his once-promising career seems to be headed in the right direction.
In 2011, English won on the Korn Ferry Tour while still an amateur. He won on the PGA TOUR in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He hasn’t won since, though. He leads the field in greens hit while ranking second in driving accuracy. He had similarly strong ballstriking at last week’s A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, where he finished T3. It was his best PGA TOUR finish since 2016.
The Sanderson Farms Championship has favored first-time winners. The five previous tournaments at the Country Club of Jackson all went to players who had yet to win on the PGA TOUR. The tournament was held opposite the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in those years, though. This is the first year the tournament has its own date and the winner will receive 500 FedExCup points.
One thing will likely remain the same, though. Another low score will be needed Sunday. No winner at the Country Club of Jackson has shot higher than 68 on Sunday.
Munoz has held the 54-hole lead once before in his PGA TOUR career, taking a two-shot lead into the final round of A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier two years ago. He shot 2-over 72 in the final round as Xander Schauffele collected his first PGA TOUR victory.
He has one win on the Korn Ferry Tour, winning in his home country in three years ago.
Ortiz had the best finish of his career at last year’s Sanderson Farms (T3). He was the Korn Ferry Tour’s Player of the Year five years ago after he won three times.
His success was an inspiration to Munoz, showing him that they could succeed at the professional level.
On Sunday, they’ll be both friend and foe.