Aaron Rai was asked how he would describe the moment. He laughed. How could he, right?
Then, with an NBC camera in his face, he found the best word.
Perfect. And over about a half-hour on Saturday, he nearly was, over one of golf’s most trying closing stretches. The Englishman birdied the par-5 16th at TPC Sawgrass. He birdied the par-4 finisher during the Players Championship third round. And those sandwiched an ace. On the iconic, island-green, par-3 17th, Rai’s ball dropped for a one.
He’s the 10th player to ace 17 since 1997.
No player in tournament history has finished 4, 1 and 3.
He started the 16th tied for 17th. He’ll start Sunday’s final round tied for fourth, five shots back of leader Scottie Scheffler.
“Yeah, it was incredible,” Rai said on NBC. “The atmosphere around this event, even over the last couple of days, has been one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever competed in. And I stepped up today.
“Obviously a great finish on 16, 17, 18. Made a lot of pars before that, and it felt like the round was kind of moving steadily but not really moving anywhere. And then made a great birdie on 16, and you saw what happened on 17, and then really proud of the way we finished off there on 18 because it can be challenging after a moment like that to compose myself and play the hole well, which is what we did.
“So yeah, very pleased with how we finished there.”
Well said again. Let’s start with 17, and the shot they’ll be showing on the highlight video. It was playing 122 yards, with the pin toward the front. Rai hit gap wedge. Notably, he has just bought a house in the Ponte Vedra Beach area and has played Sawgrass often, but all that intelligence did was tell him to take his three and move along.
“Really for those front pins — we had a front right on Thursday and obviously front left today,” Rai said. “The plan was to aim just for the middle of the green, and the wind was into out of the right. It was mainly out of the right today. So a shot that hits the middle of the green with falling off the wind is always spinning back towards the pin. So it felt like a safe shot where I’m playing to the biggest margin but also gives an opportunity to get close.
“So that was pretty much my plan for both front pins really to kind of pitch it middle and let it just spin back to kind of front middle. So there’s always a little bit of luck involved with making a shot like that, but, yeah, it was a good shot as well.”
In the air, moving slightly right to left, his ball tracked toward the middle of the downslope over the hole. It dropped about 15 from the front pin. It spun back. It rolled left to right.
It dropped. Rai raised his left arm, then his right.
Jason Timmis, Rai’s caddie, shoved his way toward his player, jumped into a hug, and the two 360’ed.
Beer was spilled, and noise was made.
“It was a little bit of a blur,” Rai said. “I saw it go in, and then I looked to the left to almost see, is it real, and I saw almost the crowd’s hands in the air.
“In the second after that, I looked to the right, towards my caddie, and he came running at me. So it happened very fast, but it feels very vivid now that I’m even talking about it and remembering some of those images. So I couldn’t quite believe that it happened, but very, very special. Very special. Something I’ll always remember.”
Then there was 18. Arguably, this was better.
Rai went driver down the middle, iron to 4 feet, putt, birdie, off a nearly unmatched high.
“Yeah, the walk probably from 17 to 18, I thought, was crucial, just in really trying to calm myself down and get very grounded, in the present,” he said. “Over the tee shot of 18, I felt pretty clear and pretty calm in my process, which was great.”
Of course, there’s more here.
On Sunday, he’ll be in the mix for the one of the richest purses in golf history — $4.5 million to the winner, $25 mill total.
At his first Players.
With no PGA Tour wins on his ledger.
How we feeling, Aaron?
“To be competing in it,” he said on NBC, “to be playing in the Players, to have a chance to compete on Sunday is amazing, so I’m just grateful for that right now.”
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