PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.(AP) Alex Cejka could see chaos all around him at The Players Championship, or at least hear it through the groans of a scorching Saturday at the TPC Sawgrass that delivered so many meltdowns.
He was among the few to survive, taking on the flag with an 8-iron on the final hole that set up a 5-foot birdie for an even-par 72 and a five-shot lead, the largest after three rounds in the 36 years of this prestigious event.
Time to exhale? Not quite.
In a tournament full of surprises, the biggest of all might be his date in the final round Sunday: Tiger Woods.
Woods didn’t look like a player who should be in contention, not after having to play one shot left-handed from the base of a pine, missing one shot by 40 feet with a wedge in his hand and looking increasing frustrated at birdie chances that slipped away.
But back-to-back birdies, followed by a huge break on the 18th hole, changed his fortunes.
His 2-under 70 turned out to be good enough to move up 20 spots into a six-way tie for second, in the final pairing Sunday with a 38-year-old who has never held a final-round lead on U.S. soil.
“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 was at 11-under 205 and doesn’t seem to be all that intimidated.
He recalled beating Woods the last time they were paired in the final round of a big event – that was the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, when Woods was a 20-year-old amateur. Cejka shot 67 to finish 11th; Woods had a 70.
And the Czech-born German is going with a familiar Sunday attire – red shirt and black pants – a tradition for Woods in the final round.
“Hopefully, it works for me, too,” Cejka said. “It’s nice to watch the best player in the world, but I’ve got to focus again on my game tomorrow and let him work a little bit.”
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.
Even so, Woods was not alone in his pursuit.
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.
Woods got into the final group because he was the first to finish among the group at 6-under 210, and what a finish it was.
He had been struggling all day in temperatures that climbed into the 90s. He had to hit one shot left-handed from the base of a pine, missed his target by 40 feet with a wedge, and looked increasingly frustrated as he missed birdie chances.
Back-to-back birdies got him in range, and a huge break that followed on the 18th kept him there.
He was in the trees again, a few feet from the divot he left the day before when he made a tremendous escape. This time, a 6-iron came out hot and more left than he wanted, racing through the green and tumbling down a bank toward the pond. But a tuft of Bermuda grass grabbed the ball a foot from the water, and Woods managed to save par.
He had no idea where it would lead him.
“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.
-Poulter took bogeys on two par 5s.
-David Toms was making a run until he shot 42 on the back nine for a 77.
-Kevin Na managed only two pars on the back nine for a 40.
The good news for most was that they still had hope.
“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 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.
“This course, it’s crazy,” Na said. “You’ve got the greatest players in the world having trouble shooting par on this golf course. There’s a reason we’re shooting over par.”