PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Alex Cejka made a 5-foot birdie putt on the final hole to end a wild and steamy Saturday at The Players Championship that left yet another surprising development: Tiger Woods in the final group.
Cejka kept out of the water over the closing holes and wound up with an even-par 72 to build a five-shot lead, the largest after three rounds in the 36 years of this prestigious event.
But the work might just be starting. He has a date Sunday in the final group with the world’s No. 1 player.
Woods appeared to be struggling throughout the scorching afternoon, where temperatures climbed into the 90s. He had to hit one shot left-handed from the base of a pine. He made a putt from 50 feet and missed others from inside 10 feet.
But he got a huge break at the end of his round.
He two-putted for birdie on the 16th and made a slick 8-foot birdie on the island-green 17th before again hitting his tee shot into the trees, about a yard away from where he was on Friday. But his 6-iron came out hot and toward the left side, running through the green and tumbling toward the water until the Bermuda rough grabbed the ball a foot from going into the pond.
Woods chipped to 4 feet and saved par for an even-par 70.
He left the course not knowing he would improve 20 positions to a tie for second, let alone play in the last group.
“You figured some of the guys would shoot 3- or 4-under-par today, but it’s just not happening out there,” Woods said.
Instead, everyone went the other direction.
Cejka was at 11-under 205, and looked fairly steady considering the chaos going on around him.
Henrik Stenson was two shots behind until he bogeyed three of the last five holes, nearly chipping into the water on the 16th. He wound up with a 73, and was in the six-way tie for second that included Woods, two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (71), Jonathan Byrd (71), Ben Crane (72) and Ian Poulter, who didn’t make a single birdie on his way to a 75.
In Woods’ only victory this year since returning from knee surgery, he matched his PGA Tour best with a five-shot comeback against Sean O’Hair in the final pairing at Bay Hill.
This will be first time on the PGA Tour that Cejka has held an outright lead going into the final round, and it helps that the margin is five. The uncertainly is how he reacts to such a massive gallery and the energy that Woods seems to attract.
“It’s going to be tough,” Cejka said. “He’s the best player. It’s going to be a good challenge for me. I know I have a lead, but it’s against not only Tiger but against the rest of the field. I’ve got to play well tomorrow to win here.”
Cejka noted that he does have experience going up against Woods in the final round of big events. That would be the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, when Woods was a 20-year-old amateur. Cejka shot 67 and Woods had a 70.
And there is more than just Woods in the hunt.
Despite the calamity in the final two hours on the TPC Sawgrass, Sunday brings opportunity.
“I’m still in pretty good shape,” Stenson said. “I would have liked to have finished better. That’s just the nature of this golf course.”
Mother Nature didn’t help.
After overnight rain on the eve of the tournament, the TPC Sawgrass has been in an oven set to broil. The putting surfaces are more yellow than green. The fairways are faster than ever. The slightest miss can lead to big trouble.
No one had quite a wild day as Kevin Na. He was two strokes behind at the turn, then bogeyed the next two holes and put a tee shot in the water on the par-3 13th and took triple bogey. He got back in the mix with a birdie on the 15th and an eagle on the 16th, only to bogey the last two holes for a 74.
He was in the group at 5-under 211.
The third round was so topsy-turvy that Kenny Perry and Woody Austin both made the cut on the number, shot 68 in the morning, and moved up 58 spots into a tie for 11th.