PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Welcome back, Stadium Course. We missed you.
There were so many red numbers the first two days, the Players scoreboard looked like it was on fire. Scores were low on Thursday. They were low again on Friday. What was this, the Greater Hartford Open?
This is the Stadium Course, where leads disappear with tiny splashes and the phrase “drop zones” has nothing to do with parachutes. On Saturday, after two days of hot sun had baked the greens, the Stadium Course bit back. The greens were firmer, the pins were diabolically placed and the wind kicked up just enough in the afternoon to become a factor. How tough was it? There were only five scores in the 60s, none lower than the 68s shot by Woody Austin and Kenny Perry. Tiger Woods shot a quiet two-under 70, scrambling all the way, and charged up the leader board — especially once he got off the course. Woods, at six under par, was tied for sixth when he finished. By the end of the day, he was tied for second and playing in Sunday’s final pairing. Amazing.
The Stadium Course was the only winner in Saturday’s round. There were survivors, like leader Alex Cejka, who has a five-shot lead after scraping out a nervy 72. And then there were the others. Like Masters champion Angel Cabrera, who blew up to a 77. Like Jason Dufner, who was in contention until he doubled the 10th, bogeyed three in a row and shot 77. Like Ian Poulter, a contender who failed to make a single birdie en route to a 75. Like Henrik Stenson, who was threatening Cejka’s lead before he bogeyed three of the last five holes, including an ugly three-putt at the 17th.
How tough was it on Saturday? All you had to see was Poulter putting on the 17th green. The pin was in front and Poulter was on the top tier. He aimed 90 degrees to the left, completely away from the hole, and let the slope feed his ball down toward the cup. He lagged it to within inches, a brilliant play for a nice par.
All you had to see was Woods, in tree trouble again at the 11th hole. He flipped his clubhead upside down and played a lefthanded shot back across the fairway. He made bogey. It was an adventure and, by the way, Tiger looks like he’s got game as a lefty.
All you had to see was Kevin Na, who worked his way to second place with three birdies on the front nine, then tripled the par-3 13th with a shot in the water, bounced back with a birdie and an eagle, then finished bogey-bogey to drop back to a tie for eighth. “Every hole is birdie-able, but you can definitely make an X on it, too,” Na said. “The golf course is playing very tough. [Score] even par today and you’re passing the world.”
All you had to see was Retief Goosen, the two-time U.S. Open champion, and his wild showing at the 14th hole. He was buried in some thick bermuda rough 40 yards short of the green when he played a magical pitch to the front of the putting surface and watched it roll the length of the green and go in, turning a potential double bogey into the birdie that sparked him to a 71 and a piece of second place.
If the greens were this tough Saturday, what are they going to be like on Sunday? Goosen knows. “A bit like that cart path,” he said, pointing. “So we’ll practice our chipping on a cart path tonight.”
All you had to do was look at the stats. The scoring average for Saturday’s third round was one and a half strokes higher than the first round, and if felt like a bigger difference than that.
The course was so tough, even the pulseless Goosen was cracking jokes. The laughing won’t last long, however. On a day when the course made the field look like the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, one man’s short game helped him rise above the rest. All of a sudden Woods is the best player on the leader board, by a mile. Suddenly, with apologies to long-shot Cejka, he looks like the man to beat. The last time Woods trailed by five shots going into the final round was Bay Hill, where he quickly gained ground on Sean O’Hair and hung around until O’Hair handed him the tournament at the end.
“Obviously, you always know he’s going to be out there,” Goosen said of Woods. “Then again, if the leaders start making birdies, he’s feeling depressed if he’s falling behind. You don’t expect anybody to run away on this golf course. So tomorrow is going to be an interesting day.”
The weather forecast is for more of the same: hot, sunny, humid and light breezes. And, oh yeah, a serious high-pressure front moving in on the back nine Sunday, with the emphasis on pressure.
“I said yesterday, it was going to be tough to get close to the pins today,” said Stenson, a power-hitting Swede. “The greens are quick and firming up. There’s a lot of tricky putts out there.”
The amazing part of Saturday’s round was that the course played so much more difficult even though it still wasn’t a terribly windy day.
“It’s just difficult scoring conditions,” said Ben Crane, who was proud of his third-round 72, which put him in a five-way tie for second with Woods, Goosen, Stenson and Jonathan Byrd. “The greens are firm now. If the greens continue to dry out like this, it will be even tougher tomorrow.”
Sunday’s final round shapes up as a serious horse race. Cejka is the wild card. He has won some big events in Europe, like the 2002 Trophee Lancome, but it has been seven years since he won anything. His history says he’s tough. You’d have to be if, when you were nine years old, you and your father jumped off a train to escape Communist Czechoslovakia. After stops in several countries, he ended up in Germany. He has never won on the PGA Tour, however, and his current world ranking is 267.
Cejka has a nervous style, and he isn’t the kind of player anyone expects to run away with the lead, especially at TPC Sawgrass. Give him a score in the mid-70s Sunday, and this tournament is wide open. There are 39 players between six under and two under. Even at one under, Phil Mickelson might not be out of it if he can muster a 64 or 63, although those scores seemed impossible Saturday, and they may be on Sunday, too.
Here’s my form chart for Sunday:
The favorite: Tiger. The man isn’t playing his best golf, by a mile, yet only one player is ahead of him. His short game has never looked more immaculate, and hitting greens in regulation will become even more difficult on Sunday as the greens firm up. That means chipping and pitching will be the key to victory. He’s the best on Tour at both, if not the best of all time. Five shots on the Stadium Course can be made up in two holes, sometimes one, and he’s got more experience fighting for the lead than anyone else on the board.
The contender: You’ve got to like the way Cejka has hung in there with the toughness of a Marine. His game started to slip a bit on Saturday, a clutch birdie on the 18th hole notwithstanding. A victory would be a long shot on the order of Craig Perks winning here a few years ago. (It happened, though.) Plus, he’s paired with Tiger. History says, that guy usually melts like a cheese sandwich in the final round. Cejka will be out of his element, totally.
The big gun: Stenson should’ve had second place to himself, but he finished poorly. He lost his drive right at the 14th hole, the meanest par 4 on the course. He nearly pitched into the water at the par-5 16th, then needed three more to get down on what should’ve been a rare birdie hole. He three-putted the 17th from a slick seven feet above the cup. His finish does not bode well for Sunday’s pressure, but he’s got a track record here. He was 10th last year and third in ’06. He can play this course. It’ll be Tiger and Stenson battling at the finish.
The sleeper: Goosen regained his winning touch, finally, at Innisbrook this year. It was beginning to look as if his final-round blowup at Pinehurst in the 2005 U.S. Open might have lasting career damage. If Goose truly is all the way back, he has the kind of short game to deal with the Open-like firmness the Stadium Course is going to have. He would be a surprise only because he fell off his form for a couple of years.
The long shot: Don’t laugh, but it’s Kenny Perry. He’s at four under, seven behind Cejka but only two behind Tiger and friends. He hits it high and long. And he’s out ahead of the leaders far enough to be in a position to post a score early and put the pressure on them, the opposite of his Masters finish. There might be some poetic justice in there, too, since he was not happy about being paired with Masters champion Angel Cabrera in the first two rounds.
The odds don’t change one thing — Cejka has the lead. Asked about the mental challenges of having a five-shot lead and Woods in the group, Cejka laughed and answered, “I don’t know, I’ve never had a five-shot lead. It depends how I sleep and how I feel on the driving range tomorrow. There is no guarantee, but I’d rather be five ahead than two behind and playing with him.”
Cejka already has one piece of strategy for Sunday. He’s going to wear a red shirt and black slacks, Tiger’s trademark Sunday power suit. “Hopefully, it works for me, too,” he said, laughing again. “We’ll see.”