PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Kevin Na didn’t feel comfortable about anything Saturday except his name atop the leaderboard at The Players Championship.
Na rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole for one of only three rounds without a bogey on a tough day at the TPC Sawgrass. It gave him a 4-under 68 and a one-shot lead over Matt Kuchar as he goes after the richest prize on the PGA Tour — a five-year exemption and a spot in all the majors.
For all his practice swings and waggles, even purposely missing the ball so he could start over, Na pieced together a brilliant round free of bogeys. He finished with two birdies on the last three holes to build a one-shot lead over Matt Kuchar, who hit into the water at the island-green 17th and had to settle for a 69.
Rickie Fowler, coming off his first PGA Tour win last week at Quail Hollow, was dynamic as ever as he shot up the leaderboard. Fowler didn’t make a bogey until the last hole but still had the best score of the third round with a 66 and was two shots behind.
He is trying to become the first player since David Duval in 1997 to win his first two PGA Tour titles in consecutive weeks.
Texas Open champion Ben Curtis also played bogey-free. He just didn’t have as many birdies, missing from inside 10 feet on his last two holes for a 70. He was five shots behind, along with former Masters champion Zach Johnson (73).
Tiger Woods never came close to getting into contention, though he gave himself plenty of chances. The card shows two birdies, two bogeys and a 72 that left him 10 shots out of the lead going into the final round. It was hard for him to digest.
“I played well today and didn’t get anything out of that round,” Woods said. “It was probably the most solid I’ve hit the golf ball all year, actually. Even though I hit a couple off line, they were just hit dead flush. I just got nothing out of the round.”
Kuchar went eight consecutive holes without a par — six birdies and two bogeys — to seize control on a windy day at Sawgrass. But he slightly missed on his tee shot at the par-3 17th and never came close to land. He did well to hit his third shot from the drop area to 5 feet to escape with bogey.
“It was exciting,” Kuchar said. “A lot of birdies and a lot more bogeys than I normally make. But I knew today was going to be a tricky day. I knew there were going to be a lot of bogeys. I knew there were dangers around every corner.”
Na managed to avoid them, and now tries to become the first 54-hole leader to win The Players Championship since the tournament moved to May.
“I know how to play under pressure,” Na said. “I’ve won before. I’ve been in situations like this. I’ve got to take everything I’ve learned and do my best.”
He was at 12-under 204.
Na is considered among the slowest players in golf, and he was given a bad time on the 16th hole for being on the clock and taking too long to hit his shot. One more bad time and he would have become the first PGA Tour player in 20 years to be given a one-shot penalty.
He was informed of his bad time, and was told his appeal was denied after hitting onto the 17th green. Then, Na drilled his tee shot after only three waggles on the 18th hole, backed off only once and then hit his approach to 15 feet to set up his last birdie.
Na said he is changing his swing and still struggles with balance, making it hard for him to get comfortable over the ball. He knows the world is watching, and he realizes it makes for painful viewing from living rooms and behind the ropes.
“I know it’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s frustrating for me. I want to pull the trigger. … It’s getting better little by little. Hopefully, it will go away by the end of the year.”
The first step is getting through Sunday.
Kuchar, who also challenged at the Masters, is getting by with control of his driver and his emotions. Even on a poor tee shot at the 14th, the worst Kuchar could say was, “Oh, stinker!” What cost him more was a ball sinking to the bottom of the pond at the 17th, though Kuchar can’t argue with his position in the last group Sunday.
Fowler still sees himself as an underdog, even though he broke through last week at Quail Hollow to win in a playoff that included Rory McIlroy. The last player to win consecutive weeks on tour was Woods in 2009. Woods, Tom Kite in 1989 and Raymond Floyd in 1981 are the only players to make that second straight win The Players Championship. Fowler figured no one gave him much of a chance.
That might change now.
“I feel like I’m in kind of an underdog position — maybe overlooked at the start of the week, won last week, maybe a little tired,” Fowler said. “I’m ready to go. Like I said last week, it’s all about giving yourself chances out here, and I gave myself a chance last week on Sunday and took advantage of it. Go out tomorrow, have some fun, give it our best shot and see where that puts us.”
Woods’ chances effectively ended just before the turn. He missed a 6-foot birdie on No. 6 and three-putted No. 7 from 12 feet. He missed a 7-foot birdie putt on the par-3 eighth, and a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-5 ninth. And then, he bogeyed the 10th.
“I figured if I shot 67, 68, something in that range, I would be right in the ball game going into tomorrow,” Woods said. “This golf course is set up today where you can go out there and shoot a 65, but then again, you can also go shoot something in the 80s pretty easily, too.”
George McNeill shot 82, the only round in the 80s, though there were some big wrecks.
Harris English, one shot out of the lead in his Players Championship debut, hit an opening drive that bloodied a marshal. He made bogey, then took a triple bogey on the par-5 second and a double bogey on the fifth for a 42 on the front nine. He shot 79 and was 12 shots behind. Charlie Wi was hanging around the contenders until he ended his day with a four-putt double bogey on the 18th, leaving him seven shots back.
Phil Mickelson, trying to cap off a week that began with his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, had a 70 that have him an outside shot at 4-under 212.