PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Somewhere, Craig Perks is smiling. The relatively obscure winner of the 2002 Players Championship looks like a household name next to the veritable Who's He of leaders halfway through the 2009 Players.
At the Masters the water-cooler talk was of Tiger and Phil. At the Players, not so much — Woods (69 Friday, 4-under overall) and Mickelson (71, even par) seem to have misplaced their A-games in the 77,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-revival clubhouse. The best you can say of Tiger (who'll begin Saturday's round tied for 22nd) is he's looking more comfortable in the trees every day. And Phil? When he had to birdie the par-5 ninth hole (his last on Friday) to make the cut, he did.
"I hit the ball really well today," Mickelson said. "I hit a lot of fairways, I hit a lot of greens, I didn't make squat."
This week's dream team, if there is one, consists of leader Alex Cejka (67 on Friday, 11-under for the tournament) and Kevin Na (66, 7-under) — a German born in the Czech Republic and a South Korean, both of whom live in Las Vegas and found themselves playing together on Thursday and Friday.
"We were calling each other neighbors," Na said. "'Nice putt there, neighbor.' He made a lot of putts and so did I. We were making fun of each other. It's like, 'Man, the hole is too big. Come on, you made it? Another putt? Are you kidding me?' We had a great time out there. And that was I think the reason why we both played well."
O.K., so it's not Phil throwing a front-nine 30 at Tiger on Sunday at Augusta, but what are you gonna do? So what if Cejka sent the same buzz across TPC Sawgrass as day-one leader Ben Crane. ("Is he still playing the Tour?") It just proves that on the PGA Tour any given player, in any given week, can send you scurrying for your media guide.
Jason Dufner (70, 7-under), John Mallinger (71, 7-under) and Richard S. Johnson (72, 6-under) could make up the midfield for Manchester United, for all their familiarity in American living rooms. Wait, check that: We know that Duffner, according to Stewart Cink's trenchant Twitter, may have played the first round without wearing underpants.
Which brings us to Henrik Stenson, the Swede who memorably stripped down to his Bjorn Borg boxer-briefs to hit a shot out of the mud at Doral earlier this year. If you think Stenson took a lot of grief for that stunt, imagine if he'd gone commando, or as they'll be calling it on Tour, the Full Duffner. In any case, Stenson shot 69 on Friday and was at 7-under for the tournament, making him one of two bona fide stars on the leader board — in Europe. His Ryder Cup teammate Ian Poulter, still seeking his first W in America, kept pace with a 4-under 68 on Friday. At round's end Poulter stood just two off the lead at 9-under and will play with Cejka on Saturday.
"I'm going at a lot of pins," said Poulter, who is coming off a T5 at Quail Hollow last week and has three other top-15 PGA Tour finishes in 2009. "When they're tucked next to the water like they have been I'm going for 15 to 20 feet [on the safe side], and the way I've been putting, that's a definite birdie chance."
The biggest star on the board? That would be your Masters champion Angel Cabrera of Argentina, in more ways than one. El Pato fired a 65 on Friday to get into the six-way logjam at 7-under for the tournament, but it seems the rugged (and slightly rounding) Cabrera is feeling sheepish about his prodigious appetite. Word in the pressroom is he's disputing the story that he ate nine cheeseburgers at this year's Masters champion's dinner.
So far at the 2009 Players, it's the meatiest story we have.