Bad play early by leaders, allows others to shine
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – As if seeing Jeff Maggert re-appear at The Players Championship for the first time in 10 years or so wasn’t enough of a surprise, how about the suddenly shoddy play by your leaders?
Having spent the better part of two days making birdie upon birdie, the top 12 names on the leaderboard through 36 holes found the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass a much different animal in Saturday’s third round. Credit crispier greens or swirling winds, or perhaps put the blame on nerves, but the play from the leaders was hardly inspiring.
When the horn sounded at 4:09 p.m. to suspend play due to dangerous weather, only three of the top 12 leaders at the start of the day were enjoying sub-par efforts. Eight others were over par and Tiger Woods was level par through six holes. The end result was a change from a marquee leaderboard (Sergio Garcia, Tiger Woods, and Lee Westwood – the last three names on the tee sheet) to more of an eclectic one (Henrik Stenson leading, Garcia and Woods one back, with Maggert, Marc Leishman, and David Lingmerth one more back).
Golf. Go figure.
The surprisingly bad play came early and often. Up at the par-4 fourth, for instance, the normally rock-solid Zach Johnson drove into a fairway bunker, missed his approach wildly left, then stubbed his first wedge. After knocking his fourth shot on Johnson three-putted from 10 feet for an ugly triple-bogey and dropping to just 4-under.
At about that same time, Lee Westwood, starting the day 9-under and just two back, pulled his drive at the first hole up against a tree. With an awkward swing, Westwood tried to avoid the tree as he pulled back then club, then chopped the ground some 6 inches behind the ball and whiffed. He then punched out, put his fourth on, and two-putted from 20 feet for a double.
Not done with the ugly stuff, Westwood hit his approach long at the fourth, chiped poorly, and made another double.
When play was halted, Westwood was 3-over through eight holes, just 6-under for the tournament, and now four back.
Johnson and Westwood were hardly the only leaders to stumble. Matt Kuchar, for instance, started the day four strokes back, but bogeyed Nos. 2, 3, and 4, then doubled the par-4 fifth. Birdies at the sixth and seventh righted the ship, but Kuchar was sitting seven shots back when the halt came.
Kevin Chappell? Also 7-under and four back to start the day, he bogeyed four of the first five holes and had fallen to six behind.
Now away from the collective problems for the leaders sat a few exceptions. Stenson, for one, and Maggert, for another. Each seemingly an afterthought for different reasons, Stenson and Maggert surely qualify as reclamation projects. Stenson won this Players Championship in 2009 but has battled to maintain his playing status since then. But having slowly discovered a little bit of life in recent times, Stenson birdied the fourth and sixth holes to push to 11-under, which is where he sat when play was halted.
Garcia, who bogeyed the par-5 second, was 10-under, tied with Woods, but then came the clubhouse leader, the surprising Maggert.
At 49, he concedes he’s thinking more about the Champions Tour than competing against the younger crowd, though Maggert isn’t going to turn back the Saturday performance that thrust him back into the spotlight. Starting the day in a tie for 29th, 3-under and nine back, the three-time PGA Tour winner went out in 31, then birdied 10 and 16 to get into a share of the lead at 10-under.
It was short-lived, because Maggert missed the green left at the 18th, blasted long, and required two putts for his only bogey of the day.
Still, he could smile. Because his day was done, while others had much work to do. Because it’s always fun to turn back the clock. Maggert, after all, had just one top 10 last year and has had but six since 2007. His last good Players Championship was 2003 when he was T-11. In six visits to the PGA Tour showcase event since then, Maggert has done no better than a T-33.
“When I was in my 30s, I never really thought that it would be that difficult to really stay focused and stay competitive in my late 40s,” Maggert said. “I just assumed that it was going to be easy.”
It’s not, of course.
Then again, players much younger than Maggert could say the same thing about the early going in Round 3.