PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Alex Cejka served up more proof Friday that The Players Championship is full of surprises, not only on the devilish TPC Sawgrass but on the leaderboard.
A week after he needed an epidural to restore feeling in his right arm, Cejka ran off six birdies in 11 holes to start his second round and wound up with a 5-under 67 to build a two-shot lead over Ian Poulter going into a weekend full of possibilities.
Neither of the top two players have ever won on the PGA Tour, and only one player in the 35-year history of this event has ever made this his first PGA Tour victory. An eclectic group four shots behind include Masters champion Angel Cabrera, former PGA champion David Toms and Jason Dufner, an alternate when he showed up Monday who earned a tee time through someone else’s misfortune.
Tiger Woods did his best to get back into the hunt, with a delicate pitch out of the mounds for a short birdie, and making an important save on the par-5 16th by trying to land short of the green with his third shot, even though he was only 45 yards away.
“I got myself back in the ball game,” Woods said after a 69, leaving him seven shots behind.
Seven shots sounds like a lot, but perhaps not at Sawgrass, where even small mistakes can lead to big numbers.
Cejka avoided that better than most.
He didn’t hit the ball as pure as the first round, when he hit every fairway and missed only one green on his way to a 66, but he holed enough putts to reach 11-under 133 and get into the final group on the PGA Tour for the first time in nearly five years.
“I’m pretty excited to sit here two days in a row,” he said.
Kevin Na, who played with Cejka before no more than a few dozen people most of the round, tried to make up ground and had a 66 to finish in the group at 7-under 137, along with Cabrera (65), Dufner (70), Toms (70), Henrik Stenson (69) and John Mallinger (71).
Cejka didn’t seem overly surprised to be leading, despite his recent health issues. He had surgery to replace a disk in his neck last year and everything was going well until he couldn’t feel his arm two weeks ago. He had an epidural, regained some feeling in his arms, hands and fingers, then got right back to work.
“In New Orleans, where I didn’t feel anything at all, I really played from tee-to-green phenomenal,” he said. “I just had no feeling, and I couldn’t make putts. The feeling is better, and I can see it on the greens. So we’ll see what happens the next two days.”
Phil Mickelson is thankful he gets to play for two more days. He struggled with his putting most of the round and shot 1-under 71, making birdie on the last hole to make the cut on the number.
“You never want to give up here, because too many things can happen on this golf course,” Mickelson said.
Cejka proved that anything can happen off the golf course.
Born in Czechoslovakia, he was 9 when he fled communism and traveled through four countries before settling in Germany, not known as fertile soil for golf. But he took interest in the game, especially after watching Bernhard Langer win the Masters in 1985.
“For me, it was a vacation,” he said. “Of course, probably my dad was nervous as hell just leaving everything behind, taking the son and a little backpack and just weaving through three of four countries into the west.”
Poulter is well known in these parts, despite never winning. He has played on two Ryder Cup teams for Europe, a questionable captain’s pick last year until going 4-1-0 in a U.S. victory.
He loves the big stage, whether it’s the Ryder Cup or his runner-up finish at the British Open next year. As long as he can eliminate the mistakes and avoid rash decisions — no small task at Sawgrass — he feels his time is coming.
“It would mean everything,” he said.
Woods, meanwhile, is lurking. He hit a few wild tee shots, but managed a birdie from one of them on the 14th hole when he caught a flat lie at the bottom of a slope and hammered an 8-iron over an oak tree to 25 feet.
“I’m hitting it good enough where I can miss that tree,” he said.
He nearly ended in spectacular fashion, punching a 7-iron under the trees and bouncing it up the 18th fairway to 10 feet, but he missed the birdie putt and was in the large group at 4-under 140.
Woods figures he can make a move Saturday. He just isn’t sure which direction.
“The way the pins are for tomorrow, you can probably shoot a good one if you play well,” he said. “But you have to hit the ball well. You’ve got to take advantage of the slopes. Because if you don’t, and you hit the wrong side, then you’re going to be in some tough spots.”