PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jerry Kelly and Kevin Na headed into the weekend at The Players Championship with another chance at winning the PGA Tour’s biggest and richest event.
Thanks to a clutch putt by Tiger Woods rarely seen of late, he made the cut on the number and gets to keep playing.
Na, the 54-hole leader three years ago until he faded under intense scrutiny of serious swing issues, settled down after a wild start for a 3-under 69. He shared the lead with Kelly, a 48-year-old from Wisconsin who has even stronger memories of the TPC Sawgrass.
Kelly had a two-shot lead over Woods in 2001 going into a final round that took two days to complete because of storms. Woods went on to win, and two weeks later he completed his grand sweep of the majors at Augusta National.
Fourteen years later, Kelly and Woods are in different roles.
“I figured I would have another chance at this golf course,” Kelly said. “I didn’t think it would be that long, but it’s just strange. This whole career has gone by in the blink of an eye.”
Kelly and Na were at 8-under 136, two shots clear of Rickie Fowler (69), Chris Kirk (68), David Hearn (71) and Branden Grace (67).
Not much is left from all that star power on both ends of the draw at the start of the week.
Rory McIlroy held up his end. He had a 71 and was only four shots back going into the weekend. The other two guys in his group, Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Jason Day of Australia, won’t be around for the last 36 holes.
Spieth spent too much time trying to save par and finished with a meaningless bogey for a 72 to miss by three shots. Day started the second round tied with McIlroy and had two 7s on his card within four holes. He closed with a double bogey for an 81.
Phil Mickelson, who played in the group ahead of Woods, had two 6s and a 7 on his way to a 76 to miss the cut for the third straight year.
“I was thinking to myself as I was walking around, `I can’t believe I’ve actually won here,’ you know?” Mickelson said.
Woods, in his first start since he showed a remarkable short-game recovery at the Masters, hovered around the cut line most of the day until he got to the par-5 ninth for his last hole. He choked up for a soft pitching wedge to 10 feet, made the birdie and showed the kind of emotion he once reserved for big shots and big moments.
That gave him a 71 for even-par 144, making the cut on the number.
Given the nature of the Stadium Course, and the quality of the field, making the cut on the number means he was only eight shots out of the lead.
“I feel like I’m playing well enough to get myself up there,” Woods said. “I just need one good round and narrow up that gap between myself and the lead, and I feel like I can do that.”
Na was a different player in 2012. He was vilified for his slow play, which he attributed to having the yips with his swing. He simply couldn’t take the club back, and there times that when he did, he would purposely swing over the ball so he could start over. It was difficult to watch. It was even harder on Na.
But he has battled through it and came into The Players at No. 22 in the world ranking.
“I think I’m mentally tougher because I had gone through that, and I’m a lot more happier,” Na said.
Such is the nature of the TPC Sawgrass that no one ever felt safe.
Defending champion Martin Kaymer made two quick birdies and was one shot out of the lead. When he finished the back nine, he was in danger of missing the cut after a tee shot into the water on the 18th and a double bogey. Kaymer slowed his swing, hit some fairways and recovered with three birdies for a 72.
Fowler was poised to close in on the lead until his approach on the par-5 16th drifted too far right and went into the water for a bogey. Fowler bounced back with a birdie on the island green at the par-3 17th, and he had a 3-foot birdie attempt that fooled him on the 18th.
Even so, he was two shots behind and brings a little extra motivation with him. In a magazine survey of players, in which they didn’t have to give their names, Fowler and Ian Poulter tied with 24 percent of the vote for the most overrated on tour. Fowler has won twice worldwide and is No. 13 in the world, mainly on the strength of his four top-5 finishes in the majors last year.
“If there’s a time where I need something to kind of give me a kick in the butt, then I can think of that and it will put me in the right frame of mind to go out there and take care of business,” Fowler said.