Patrick Cantlay faces uphill task after flat Saturday: Final round preview of The American Express

The little-known Lee Hodges and Paul Barjon lead by one from Tom Hoge – all three are chasing a first PGA Tour win.

On Thursday morning in Palm Springs World No. 1 Jon Rahm and reigning FedExCup champion Patrick Cantlay kicked off their challenge at The American Express in electric fashion.

Cantlay was 7-under-par through seven holes, Rahm was just 2-under through the same number of holes but he ended the day with an excellent 66.

They were off to a fast start; a head-to-head between the two finest players in the field seemed assured.

That same Thursday morning Lee Hodges and Paul Barjon, ranked 312th and 313th in the world, hit the course together and will complete all 72 holes in partnership.

The pair share the lead through 54 holes in Palm Springs on 18-under 198, one blow clear of Tom Hoge and two ahead of Seamus Power.

Both of the leaders are rookies this year and between them boast not one top 10 on the PGA Tour. In a tournament that once boasted real life stage legends in the amateur field, the centre stage of the pro event this year has seen the understudies replace the stars.

American Hodges has enjoyed a rollercoaster week, carding 62-74-64, Frenchman Barjon has been more consistent with scores of 66-67-65.

The final round presents them with a huge opportunity, but the pressure is a little eased by the presence of only four PGA Tour winners in the top 10, most prominent among them the Irishman Power.

Cantlay, after his sensational front nine on Thursday, has laboured. He eventually carded an opening 62, but has added 68-72 to sit T11th on 14-under with 18 holes to play. Rahm (66-70-67) is a shot further back.

Exceptional final round scoring is always a live possibility in this tournament. Just 12 months ago Cantlay thrashed a Sunday 61 to claim solo second and back in 1999 David Duval famously landed the title with a last lap 59.

But more recently the title has been won by players at the head of the 54 hole leaderboard: since the current course rotation was introduced all six winners were tied fourth or better at this stage.

The omens are good for this year's inexperienced leading quartet. Let's take a close look at them.

Lee Hodges

His aim on Sunday? "Same thing I've been doing," he said. "I've changed my attitude a little. Being on the PGA TOUR, it was getting a little stressful at times for me and I was not handling it very well.

"My wife noticed that I wasn't my cheery self out there. I'm a pretty upbeat, happy kind of guy and it's just stressful sometimes being a rookie, not knowing when you're going to get to play and that was kind of getting to me a little bit.

"This week I told her I'm just going to go have a good time and see what happens. It's been paying off so far."

His only previous experience of a 54 hole lead was good: he won the 2020 Portland Open on the second tier (guess who he played with in that final round? Barjon!). He owns two top 20s in 13 PGA Tour starts with a best of T11th in last year's Barracuda Championship.

Paul Barjon

The Frenchman has enjoyed his week. "It was great playing with Lee again for the third day," he said. "He played really good the first day, really kind of set the tone by making pretty much everything he looked at on the green.

"That's always good to see and just kind of get inspired by. We played on the Korn Ferry Tour together. We're good buddies and I like watching his game. I guess he likes watching mine as well. We just kind of feed off each other, so it's been fun."

This is his fifth experience of having or sharing a 54 hole lead and Hodges' Portland Open win two years ago is the only time he didn't convert the win (twice on the Canadian Tour, once on the Korn Ferry Tour). He has a best of T20th at the 2019 Canadian Open in 13 starts on the main tour.

Tom Hoge

The American is making his 201st start on the PGA Tour and seeking a first win. "Very satisfied," he said after his third lap. "I've given myself a lot of looks and that's the biggest thing. I felt like I kept hitting it to 20, 25 feet today. I didn't make those today but hopefully they will start going in tomorrow."

He has good memories of the host course. "We came here in college even and I played Q-School here," he said. "I've got a lot of rounds in. It beat me up a lot early on in my career but starting to feel very comfortable over here. There's so much going on visually out there, but for me the key is just get it in the fairway and it plays to my strength with the iron game and I feel comfortable."

He won on the third tier Canadian Tour from one shot back at this stage, but has struggled to pounce on the first tier.

Rahm like a bear with a sore head

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Seamus Power

"My game is in good shape," he said. "Even when the wind blows like this I have good control over the ball, which you need out here."

His game plan on Sunday? "Nothing too complicated, to be honest. I just make sure before I hit every shot I have as clear a visual as I can of the shot and then I kind of go with it. Some days it's easier than others and so hopefully tomorrow's one of those days where it's a little easier."

His last 16 starts on the PGA Tour have reaped 11 top 20 finishes, including one win and a fast-finishing third last week in the Sony Open. He looks the biggest threat in the top four.

READ MORE: Top 10 golf tournaments closed out with a winning eagle

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