Packed leaderboard promises Sunday cavalry charge: Final round preview of the Fortinet Championship

Jim Knous and Maverick McNealy lead by two at the Silverado Resort, but there are 16 players within two shots of second.

We might have thought we were in for a quiet introduction to the 2021/22 campaign, but no longer.

Sunday at Silverado in the season-opener is suddenly staked with stories.

Jim Knous and Maverick McNealy lead by two on 14-under 202, chased by five players on 12-under, one on 11-under, and another 10 on 10-under; all 18 will feel they have it in them to lift the trophy at the conclusion of Sunday's golf.

For the co-leader Knous to be that man would complete a remarkable tale.

The 31-year-old from Colorado has been on the second tier Korn ferry Tour since 2017, with one campaign at this level in 2019 which was disrupted by a wrist injury.

He's still less than 100% and he has this start, plus one other, to earn points for a card this season: a two-way tie for third on the PGA, a top 10 for the KFT.

"The medical extension kind of just weighs on you the whole time while you're playing," he admitted after rolling in a final green 18-foot birdie on Saturday.

"I try to put it to the back of my mind as much as I can. Like I said, I have the mentality that I'm going to attack every shot I hit and take it one shot at a time, one step at a time, one foot, left, right, left, right.

"As crazy as that sounds, sometimes it's me pacing off left, right, left, right, just to dumb it down and keep it as simple as possible to not think about the overarching outcomes that could be, right?"

Alongside him on Sunday will be McNealy, who closed with birdies at 16, 17 and 18, breathing life into his quest for a first PGA Tour title.

"Definitely nervous, yeah," he admitted. "No joke, spent a lot of time doing my breathing, just trying to relax. But I welcome nerves because it allows me to hit shots that I can't hit under normal circumstances.

"The focus I had with my putter on the back nine, seeing the lines, it's an exhilarating feeling and it's one that I can only get when I'm feeling those nerves."

The two vulnerable leaders will be chased hard.

Max Homa, Scott Stallings, Mito Pereira, Troy Merritt and Beau Hossler share third; Talor Gooch is alone in eighth; Webb Simpson, Phil Mickelson, Will Zalatoris, CT Pan, Si Woo Kim and Patton Kizzire are among the dangers four back.

Can Mickelson land a second win of the year? Is this when Zalatoris breaks through?

Let's take a closer look at the leading contenders and a few stats.

Maverick McNealy

The 25-year-old had a promising amateur career, but it took him a little while to find his feet in the pro game. Last season saw a big leap (58th in the FedExCup) and now he has the chance to step up another level.

A Californian native, he's started to back that up with decent efforts in the state. He was tied seventh in last year's Barracuda Championship, T18th there this year, and tied second earlier this year at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

He was 3-for-4 at making the cut in this tournament, but had never made the top 50 before this week. His record at the top or in-contention at this stage? He's twice been leading and three times been second after 54 holes on the KFT and PGA Tours. He's yet to complete the win and in the two top tier instances he fell outside the top six.

Jim Knous

He's having golfing week of his life and victory would confirm that. He's been on the KFT full-time since the start of 2017 and played 2019 on the PGA Tour, but in all that time has just six top 10 starts. He was, however, T10th here back in 2018.

His record at, and near, the top at this stage? He's had two leads on the second tier, and twice been second, too. On all four occasions he failed to break 70 in round four and went backwards (although never outside the top 10).

Silverado stats

To identify who might be the biggest threats to the top two, let's dig into the numbers.

Silverado has hosted the PGA Tour seven times and the winner has always been tied seventh or better at this stage. All of them were within four blows of the 54 hole lead. Only two were leading. That maybe favours those at 12-under, but it's nothing concrete.

A hot short game is a must here, however. Every winner ranked top seven for Scrambling. If that is to continue, it spells bad news for McNealy (currently 69th), Homa (53rd) and Pereira (61st). It's much better news for Knous (5th), Hossler (6th), (Gooch 2nd) and Stallings (17th).

Four of the last six winners ranked top four on the par-4s. Bad news for Merritt (currently 29th), Hossler (43rd) and Gooch (29th). Better news for Knous (9th), Stallings (3rd) and Homa (3rd). None of those on 10-under currently rank top 15 for both categories.

The pick of the chasers?

Scott Stallings

Great par-4 stats, solid scrambling and he also has a hot putter, ranking second for SG Putting after working hard on that part of the game in the last few weeks.

This week is quite the bolt from the blue because he's never previously done well at the course (T21st on debut followed by four missed cuts). But he has a new stat man this year who has changed his strategy on the course and maybe that is this week's key? Two of his three PGA Tour wins came from just off the pace.

Max Homa

Another who has not done especially well here ahead of this week: he was 3-for-4 at making the cut, but had a best of T39th.

The key to his hopes are his fondness for golf on homesoil. He's a Californian and he plays poa annua very well. He also like it when the turf if fast-running turf in the state too (and it's been faster this year at Silverado than in the past).

In 2020 he landed 19-14-5 at the three poa annua Californian early season events, this year he recorded 18-7-1. It's his sweet spot.

That scrambling has not been great, but he was much improved in round three (75%) and his par-4 numbers are excellent.

"I believe in my game a lot more in the last two, three years," he said. "And the crowd was awesome. I have great support out there."

READ MORE: Rory McIlroy at the Ryder Cup: his tournament record and best quotes

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