PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was a long day Saturday at the Players Championship, and for many reasons.
Not only did inclement weather halt play for nearly two hours, but several early contenders, including defending champ Matt Kuchar, played their way out of the tournament, falling victim to difficult conditions at TPC Sawgrass. Even for those who managed to stay in contention, it wasn’t easy as high winds and dark clouds rolled in as the day progressed.
And by the time darkness set in just before 8 p.m., eight players, including six of the top seven players, had still not completed their third rounds, meaning they’ll have to finish up play Sunday starting at 7:10 a.m.
Here are 5 Things you need to know from Saturday’s third round at The Players:
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DAVID LEADS GOLIATHS: When the horn sounded at 7:48 p.m., signaling a stoppage of play for the day due to darkness, David Lingmerth had a choice: mark his ball on the par-3 17th green and sleep on a 10-foot birdie putt, or make it.
He did the latter and now leads The Players Championship by two shots at 12 under.
“I was feeling good about things, so I didn’t want to sleep on it and try to start over tomorrow morning,” said Lingmerth, who will have to finish No. 18 on Sunday morning.
Lingmerth was tied for sixth and three shots behind second-round leader Sergio Garcia entering the day. He played his first 15 holes in 1 under, mixing four birdies with three bogeys.
But as the wind started to pick up and darkness started to move in, Lingmerth caught fire. He eagled the par-5 16th after hitting his second shot to within 8 feet, and then stuffed his tee shot to 10 feet at the par-3 17th.
Now he’ll go to bed Saturday night leading one of golf’s top tournaments, and with two of golf’s biggest names – Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia – lurking close behind.
“Having those guys behind me, I know they’re going to try and hunt me down, of course,” Lingmerth said. “But I’m just going to try to forget about all that and just try to do my thing.”
Lingmerth, who moved to nearby Jacksonville Beach from Fayetteville, Ark., in December, was one of the last guys into the field, but also one of the first on the range last Sunday.
“I was looking forward to this week because all this year it’s been ongoing; I haven’t known any of the courses, basically, coming to the event,” said Lingmerth, who had missed his last five cuts entering the Players. “So this one I knew I was going to have a pretty good idea what I was going to get into.”
Only he couldn’t imagine he’d be leading after three days – and nearly three rounds – at the Players.
“It will probably be a little hard to sleep,” Lingmerth said.
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MR. TOAD HAS NOTHING ON HIM: You want wild rides? Forget Disneyland. Hunter Mahan’s closing four holes in Saturday’s third round of the Players Championship offered better chills and thrills.
Having taken his 9-under score off of the 14th green, Mahan and playing competitor Matt Kuchar were en route to the 15th tee when it was as if massive fans had been turned on. A steady wind suddenly turned into a small gale and when Mahan pulled his drive left and didn’t see the ball come down from the tree, he prayed for a little help from Mother Nature.
“Pine needles, branches, pine cones, it was all coming down (from the tree),” said Mahan.
But the ball?
“That was the only thing that didn’t come down.”
He made a double-bogey, but to his credit, Mahan maintained composure, slammed a 205-yard shot to the front of the green at the par-5 16th, and slipped home a 30-foot eagle putt.
Staying on his peaks-and-valleys adventure, Mahan at the island-green 17th three-putted from 25 feet in falling darkness.
“I just didn’t hit it hard enough,” he said. “It just never got there.”
Leaving that one 5 feet shy, Mahan missed the next one, too, and the change of momentum was to the negative side. Even more so when he sprayed his tee ball wide right at 18. When he reached his ball, it’s safe to say it was too dark to play and Mahan and Kuchar had the option of stopping there.
“But we were told the re-start would be 7:10. I said to myself, ‘Gosh, it wasn’t going to make any difference, so . . . “
Mahan took relief from the cart path, sized up a gap he had in the trees, pulled a 4-iron and “as soon as I hit it, I knew I flushed it, and it stayed on the line.”
It was a brilliant escape, his ball coming to rest 20 feet from the hole. He pretty much guessed at the line, but just burned the right edge.
Not the way he wanted to end, but given how his drive had landed in behind trees, Mahan could smile. He had shot 71 and settled in at 8-under 208.
“I played well, but I’m very happy to be done.”
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HE ADAPTS, HE SMILES: Though the day had not gone as hoped, there is still a boyishness that allows Rory McIlroy to smile with great charm. He found a trace of amazement at the wild change of wind conditions at his closing hole, for instance.
“I had a 7-iron, but had to switch to a 5 – and I still didn’t have enough,” McIlroy said. He was shaking his head, but smiling, too, for as wind gusts picked up and made his final hole a huge challenge, the kid from Northern Ireland knew this – his long and eventful day was over.
Slamming that 5-iron from 175 yards into a gale-like wind, McIlroy found the green, negotiated the two-putt from 25 feet for par, and signed for a round of 1-over 73. “Tee-to-green I played very well,” he said, “but I just didn’t get anything going on the greens.”
At 5-under 211, McIlroy left the course seven off the lead, but unlike the leaders, he doesn’t have to come back at 7:10 Sunday morning to finish. That’s the good news. But the bad? He isn’t likely to win this PGA Tour showcase, either.
Still, it’s an improvement over his first three visits to this tournament, each of which resulted in a missed cut. McIlroy opened with a 66 and has been 1-over for his last 36 holes, but he’s remained patient and true to his game plan – even at the par-5 ninth.
One day after making a bold and unnecessary decision to go for the green in two, McIlroy backed off in Round 3 and played it as a three-shot hole. The only thing is, from 78 yards “I never felt comfortable over the shot,” he said. He had a lob wedge with a hole location at the back of the green. “It was into the grain and I just didn’t nip it like I wanted.”
His ball landed 15 feet shy of the hole, didn’t check, and skipped into the bunker, from where he made his second straight bogey on the hole.
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MOVING OUT: If Saturday was Moving Day at TPC Sawgrass, then several early contenders spent the third round moving out.
Let’s start with Lee Westwood, who began his day by driving his ball left and near a tree at the par-4 first hole, and then whiffing on his second shot. He double-bogeyed the hole, his first of what would be two double bogeys on Saturday. He was 3 over on his round before play was suspended with Westwood through 15 holes. He’s currently six shots back of leader David Lingmerth after trailing by just two strokes entering the day.
Then there was defending champion Matt Kuchar, who started his round with three bogeys and a double bogey in his first five holes. He did battle back with three birdies over his next 11 holes, but another bogey at No. 18 left him with a 3-over 75. He’s now 4 under and is eight shots off the lead, which is double what he was after two rounds.
Throw in Adam Scott’s 75, Zach Johnson’s 76 and then Kevin Chappell, who was 5 over through 15 holes, and you have five guys who were inside the top 10 at the start of the day who dropped out of the top 10 by the time darkness fell Saturday on TPC Sawgrass.
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SHORT SHOTS: Louis Oosthuizen carded a 5-under 67 on Saturday to move to 5 under overall. The round included a stretch of six straight birdies from Nos. 9-14. That streak ties a Players record, as Oosthuizen became the seventh person to accomplish such a streak, joining Tom Watson (1984), Dave Rummells (1986), Fred Wadsworth (1987), Paul Azinger (1993), Rocco Mediate (1996) and Tim Herron (2005). … Chris Stroud’s ace at the par-3 13th helped him shoot 3-under 69 and move to 5 under for the tournament. “We had all of our friends and family here, and they started going crazy, so we knew it was going to be pretty good,” Stroud said. “They were walking toward the green and we could see them start standing up and they went crazy. It was a good feeling.” It was the 11th hole-in-one at No. 13 in Players history and first since Robert Garrigus in 2008. It was also the second ace of this year’s tournament after Michael Thompson’s hole-in-one at the par-3 eighth hole on Thursday. … Kevin Streelman shot 1-under 71 on Saturday to move to 6 under, which has him at T-12. He’s searching for his fourth top-10 finish in his last six events dating to his win in Tampa Bay.
Golfweek senior writer Jim McCabe contributed to this report