PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — After weather more suited for turtles and tadpoles, the sun arrived at dinnertime on Saturday at the Players, setting the stage for the absurd, the comical and the brilliant. A turtle dived headlong into a water hazard. Ian Poulter knocked a tee shot onto the island 17th hole and broke into an all-out sprint. And the best golfers in the world made a raft of birdies at dusk, setting up a final-day shootout at what has become a rain-softened and vulnerable TPC Sawgrass.
“I think a 62 or 63 is out there,” said Graeme McDowell, who stood at 11-under par along with Nick Watney, each with 31 holes left to play Sunday. “This is one of the most exciting finishes in the world of golf.”
McDowell and Watney sit atop a leader board stocked with the game’s heavyweights. Steve Stricker and David Toms trail by a shot. K.J. Choi and Lucas Glover sit two back. Martin Kaymer and Rory Sabbatini headline a group that trails by three. Nearly everyone with spikes and 14 clubs will have a chance to hoist the crystal trophy in the gloaming Sunday.
“It’s going to be a long day, especially for an old guy,” said the 44-year-old Toms. “If you’re playing well, a lot of times you kind of forget how many holes you have to play. I just need to go out and play great.”
After Saturday’s re-start at 5:30 p.m., some just wanted to play fast.
Poulter provided one of the day’s lasting images, sprinting ahead of his playing partner, Dustin Johnson, to put the group in position to finish 54 holes before the horn sounded to suspend play for darkness. After hitting his tee shot on No. 17 to 15 feet, Poulter ran to the green with his putter, made his par, and raced over to the 18th tee, where Phil Mickelson’s group had just teed off.
Poulter asked Mickelson for permission to hit his tee shot, and Mickelson happily obliged. Once Poulter struck the ball, he and Johnson would be allowed to complete the hole, no matter when the horn blew. Poulter’s ball landed in the fairway, an air horn sounded at 8:04 p.m., and Poulter and Johnson completed their third rounds.
“We were talking about it the whole time,” Poulter said of his conversations with Johnson during the round. “‘What is the time? What is the time? How much longer do we have left? It was close.”
PGA Tour official Mark Russell said the course took about 3/4 of an inch of rain, but the TPC Sawgrass SubAir system quickly sucked the moisture from the course. (The forecast for Sunday calls for scattered showers in the morning and sunshine in the afternoon).
If a major championship is a career-changing event, winning the Players is the next best thing. For McDowell, whose 2010 featured a U.S. Open title, the clinching Ryder Cup point and a victory over Tiger Woods in his own tournament, a victory at the Players would return him to the pinnacle of golf.
By his own accounts, McDowell’s 2011 has lacked the precision of the previous year.
Or, as he put it, “I was swinging like an idiot.”
“New Orleans, a couple weeks ago, was a low point in the year for sure,” he said Friday. “I was hitting some awful shots. A 15-handicap would have been about right. I really had to just go back to basics with my golf swing. My coach, Pete Cowen, came into Orlando last Friday. We grinded. We worked hard, trying to get some of the good feels back in my golf swing. A couple of things clicked.”
The wild card could by Watney, who a year ago led the PGA Championship by three shots going into the final round before collapsing with an 81. Since then, he has looked more comfortable in the big tournaments, winning a duel at the World Golf Championships at Doral and finding comfort atop leader boards.
After a day of turtles and rain, it will take comfort and birdies to win the Players.