PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.—The real Players came back to us Saturday.
I’m not saying that just because Jeff Overton made a 10, Joost Luiten shot 82, Rickie Fowler swung 78 times and so did John Huh. (All of them missed the 54-hole cut.)
It certainly isn’t because Rory McIlroy chopped up the front nine again. That strange occurrence has already gone from freakish trend to haunting tradition. McIlroy has played the front nine in nine over par for three rounds, including Friday’s 42. He is 12 under par on the back nine, including Saturday’s 31.
The Players is back because so are the train wrecks. The media center’s electronic leaderboard denotes double bogeys or worse by putting the number in a black background. Saturday still featured red numbers — birdies and eagles — but black ruled. Black was the new black.
The Stadium Course usually has the bite of a hungry jaguar, but after the first two rounds, it was more like a toothless old hound dog. Soft greens and light winds led to low scores. Par felt like 69 on Thursday, when almost half the field was in red numbers.
By Sunday afternoon, with the course firming and speeding up day by day, we may see the usual combo platter of pressure-induced mega-bogeys the Stadium Course is famous for.
The greens that suffered from some recent cold, wet weather — which were as soft and receptive as tapioca the first two days — started to get back to normal Saturday.
“I stepped up on the first green today and hit my first putt eight feet by,” said McIlroy. “I needed to adjust quickly to that. The greens are much faster, at least two or three feet quicker today.”
The field’s scoring average the first two days was 71.993 and 72.275. That’s including the guys who played poorly and missed the cut. Saturday’s average of the guys playing the best golf was 72.867, nearly a full shot higher than Thursday. And that included Overton’s 83, Luiten’s 82 and 79s by Chris Stroud and Sang Moon Bae.
Since the number of players who made the cut was oversized, all of those players except Bae fell victim to a third-round cut, leaving 71 players for Sunday’s wrap-up.
“The greens were definitely faster and firmer than yesterday,” said former Players champ Sergio Garcia. “Every time you missed a fairway today, it was difficult to hold the green, even with a lob wedge. Even though the guys scored fairly well, I thought it played tougher. I was happy to break 70.”
Garcia shot 69 and was tied for third with Aussie John Senden, three shots behind co-leaders Martin Kaymer and Jordan Spieth.
Is the course getting tougher? Kaymer shot -9 under in the opening round. He is three under since then, and a bogey at the 18th left him with an even-par 72 Saturday.
Spieth shot 71. Of the top 10 players on the leaderboard after 54 holes, the lowest third-round scores were a 67 by Francesco Molinari and a pair of 68s by Senden and David Hearn. Russell Henley, who began the day at 8 under par, within four of the 36-hole leader Kaymer, plummeted down the board with a third-round 80.
“It played tough today,” said Kaymer, the 29-year-old German and former PGA champion who shared a 54-hole PGA Tour event lead for the first time in his career, a stat he was unaware of. “Even when you hit fairways, it was gusty and therefore a bit difficult to attack the flags. Fortunately, I made a couple of good up-and-downs. I think you saw, Jordan and I made only four or five birdies in the group, which is not a lot.
“It was difficult to play today. It was a bit more windy, and they put in the pins in tough positions. Anything around par was a good score.”
If the weather stays dry, Sunday’s final round should be just as daunting. But there’s a chance of showers or an isolated storm, and probably a little less wind, about 10-15 mph. That could lead to another round of lower scoring, although it’s Sunday at the Players, and that situation alone ought to make it play two shots tougher for those in contention.
It’s got the potential to be a two-man race if Kaymer and Spieth pull away. If they don’t, eight more players are within five shots of the lead, including Garcia and Lee Westwood.
Reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose would’ve been in that group, tied for eighth, but his ball moved ever so slightly as he addressed his chip shot from behind the 18th green. He wasn’t sure if it moved, and he decided to go ahead and play away.
Television replays showed the ball did move, however, and since he didn’t replace it, he was assessed a two-shot penalty that turned his par into a double bogey. That dropped Rose back to five under par.
“You have to make a call, did my ball move or did it just sort of oscillate?” he said later. “I backed off, and this is where it turns out to be my fault. I looked at the back screen and watched the replay. Sergio is there with me and we both look at the replay and say, no, absolutely, the ball didn’t move. But under 50 times magnification in the truck, the ball moved maybe a quarter of a dimple toward the toe of the club. It was disappointing, but I’ll sleep better tonight knowing that the right decision was made. Whether the ball moved an inch or a hair, the ball moved.”
So Rose is seven shots back, tied for 13th and probably out of contention.
That said, the Stadium Course excels at taking away at what it has previously given. It looks like the Kaymer and Spieth show Sunday, but in reality it’s every player against the Stadium Course. Who wins that one? If it stays as firm and as windy as Saturday, I’ll take the course. That’s what usually decides the Players, and that’s how it should be.