PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — David Toms quit trying to be perfect on a TPC Sawgrass course that appears to demand it. It led to nearly perfect play over two days at The Players Championship and a one-shot lead over Nick Watney going into the weekend.
Toms went 25 holes before making a bogey Friday and countered with enough good shots for a 4-under 68, surprising only because he has missed the cut more than half of the times he has played in his nearly two decades at this event.
Watney did his best to catch him.
He started the back nine with back-to-back birdies, then gave himself a chance on every hole. Watney missed four birdie putts inside 12 feet over his last seven holes, settling for 71 after opening with a 64. His emotions showed what this place can do for you.
“I’m not exactly happy,” Watney said, before ending his remarks with, “I’m excited where I am.”
Toms was at 10-under 134, leading a quality list of contenders at the biggest event of golf’s strongest tour.
U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who had missed three of his last four cuts on the PGA Tour, finally got back on track with a 69 that left him two shots out of the lead, along with Steve Stricker, who made five birdies on the back nine for a 67. Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover, a winner last week at Quail Hollow, traded birdies with bogeys for a 71 and also was at 8-under 136.
Looming particularly large was Luke Donald of England, who can go to No. 1 in the world with a victory. He has only been out of the top 10 once since last September. Perhaps even more impressive this week is that Donald became the first player since 2004 to make it around Sawgrass without a bogey for the open 36 holes.
“I think it’s an accomplishment anywhere,” Donald said. “This is a tough course. There is a lot of danger lurking. It is pretty easy to slip up around this course. So it’s pretty satisfying to go without making a bogey 36 holes.
Four major champions are among the top 10 – one of them is Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, a two-time winner of The Players who was three back going into the weekend. All but Toms among the top six have won tournaments in the last year.
Even with Tiger Woods long departed after withdrawing Thursday, there was no shortage of drama.
A fan offered to be lifted down into the lake off the 18th tee to retrieve Michael Bradley’s driver when it came out of his hands. Mark Wilson called a two-shot penalty on himself for a double-hit – even though video evidence was inconclusive – which caused him to miss the cut. Jonathan Byrd challenged a bad time he received, and had Rory Sabbatini argue on his behalf.
The cut came at even-par 144, and even that featured some tough moments. Ernie Els, inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday, was in front of the par-5 ninths in two, flubbed a chip and missed a 4-foot putt to make bogey and miss the cut by one.
Then there was the scorecard of Phil Mickelson – a 31 on the front to get within two shots of the lead, a 40 on the back to settle for a 71 and linger eight shots out of the lead.
Toms doesn’t have a great record at TPC Sawgrass. In 18 previous attempts, he has missed the cut 10 times and only once has finished in the top 10. He just couldn’t figure out the right angle into the greens, and always believed it had to be just right.
“It seemed early in my career around here I was always trying to play the perfect shot,” he said. “I think the last few years, I’ve just learned to try to play my game, my shot … rather than trying to hit the perfect shot on the golf course.”
After a bogey-free opening round, he was determined not to give anything away. His first blunder came on the par-3 eighth when he missed the green to the left. He also dropped a shot on the 15th when he was between clubs and ended up hitting into a plugged lie on the bunker right of the green.
For all the putts he missed, Watney got a pair of good breaks. On the par-5 11th, his ball was headed into deep rough short of the green when he noticed it slightly plugged and covered with mud. It was determined to be in his pitch mark, so he was able to take a drop and wipe the golf ball clean, then chipped up to 4 feet for birdie.
“I would have lot a lot of money had I bet on a ball plugging today,” he said. “It was a great break and I took advantage of it.”
He was in deep rough on the 15th, but the ball landed in a divot, leaving him a clean shot that he could spin. This time, though, he missed a 7-footer. And in a mental blunder, Watney was over his 6-foot birdie putt on the 16th to tie for the lead when he heard the cheer for Bubba Watson making a long birdie on the island-green 17th. He pulled back the putter and missed it badly to the left.
No matter. He’s one shot behind, confident of adding to a World Golf Championship he won earlier this year at Doral.
Watson, meanwhile, shot a 66 to easily make the cut, and Sergio Garcia rallied for a 68 to make it to the weekend.
So did McDowell, which didn’t used to be big news.
His U.S. Open victory last summer at Pebble Beach set up a dream year for McDowell. He won the decisive singles match in the Ryder Cup to lead Europe to another win, then ended the season by coming from four shots behind to beat Tiger Woods in the Chevron World Challenge in a playoff.
Fortunes can change quickly in this game, and so can the confidence. McDowell missed three of his last four cuts on the PGA Tour before The Players, and he was starting to wonder what was going wrong.
“You go through a spell like I’ve just gone through where I just couldn’t piece anything together, you have crazy thoughts. ‘Will I ever win again? Will I ever be in contention again? Am I done? Am I finished?’ It’s just the craziness of this sport,” he said. “You never know what’s around the corner.”
That much still holds true going into the weekend.