PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Alex Cejka began his surprising run to the lead Friday in The Players Championship with a 10-foot birdie putt in the stillness of a glorious morning.
A smattering of applause drowned out the chirping of birds.
There were 14 fans, 13 marshals.
“It felt like a Monday afternoon practice round,” Cejka said after a 5-under 67 gave him a two-shot lead over Ian Poulter.
That figures to change on the weekend full of possibilities.
The Players Championship is among the more unpredictable tournaments in golf. The TPC Sawgrass is so devilish that small mistakes can lead to big numbers. The field is so strong that even guys who started the week as an alternate have a chance to win. Jason Dufner is proof of that, among those in a tie for third.
Tiger Woods hit a rake and a spectator and almost the wrong fairway. From 45 yards away on a par 5, he tried to keep his chip short of the green, did just that, and made an important par. It added to a 69 that put him seven shots behind and left a smile on his face.
“I got myself back in the ball game,” Woods said.
Not many figured Cejka would be in the lead.
It was only two weeks ago when he couldn’t feel his right arm, the product of a pinched nerve from surgery last year to replace a disk in his neck. He had an epidural last week, the numbness is almost gone, and Cejka nearly left the field in his wake.
He had six birdies in 11 holes and built a four-shot lead over the morning starters, a lead that held for most of the day until Poulter limited his mistakes and finished with a birdie for a 68.
“If you play the golf course properly, with good play you can score very well,” Poulter said.
Cejka was at 11-under 133 and will be playing in the final group going into the weekend for the first time in nearly five years.
Neither of the top two players have ever won on the PGA Tour, and only one player in the 35-year history of this event has ever made this his first PGA Tour victory. An eclectic group four shots behind include Masters champion Angel Cabrera (65), former PGA champion David Toms (70) and Dufner (70), an alternate when he showed up Monday who earned a tee time through someone else’s misfortune.
Cejka didn’t seem overly surprised to be leading, despite his recent health issues. He had surgery to replace a disk in his neck last year and everything was going well until he couldn’t feel his arm two weeks ago. He had an epidural, regained some feeling in his arms, hands and fingers, then got right back to work.
“In New Orleans, where I didn’t feel anything at all, I really played from tee-to-green phenomenal,” he said. “I just had no feeling, and I couldn’t make putts. The feeling is better, and I can see it on the greens. So we’ll see what happens the next two days.”
Phil Mickelson is thankful he gets to play for two more days. He struggled with his putting most of the round and shot 1-under 71, making birdie on the last hole to make the cut on the number.
“You never want to give up here, because too many things can happen on this golf course,” Mickelson said.
Cejka proved that anything can happen off the golf course.
Born in Czechoslovakia, he was 9 when he fled communism and traveled through four countries before settling in Germany, not known as fertile soil for golf. But he took interest in the game, especially after watching Bernhard Langer win the Masters in 1985.
“For me, it was a vacation,” he said. “Of course, probably my dad was nervous as hell just leaving everything behind, taking the son and a little backpack and just weaving through three of four countries into the west.”
Poulter is well known in these parts, despite never winning. He has played on two Ryder Cup teams for Europe, a questionable captain’s pick last year until going 4-1-0 in a U.S. victory.
He loves the big stage, whether it’s the Ryder Cup or his runner-up finish at the British Open next year. As long as he can eliminate the mistakes and avoid rash decisions – no small task at Sawgrass – he feels his time is coming.
“It would mean everything,” he said.
Woods, meanwhile, is lurking. He hit a few wild tee shots, but managed a birdie from one of them on the 14th hole when he caught a flat lie at the bottom of a slope and hammered an 8-iron over an oak tree to 25 feet.
Woods figures he can make a move Saturday. He just isn’t sure which direction.
“The way the pins are for tomorrow, you can probably shoot a good one if you play well,” he said. “But you have to hit the ball well. You’ve got to take advantage of the slopes. Because if you don’t, and you hit the wrong side, then you’re going to be in some tough spots.”