PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Webb Simpson is leading the Players Championship by seven heading to the final round.
Yep, a touchdown and an extra point.
It would have been understandable had the 36-hole leader faltered on Saturday; sleeping with the lead is notoriously difficult. Instead, Simpson expanded his five-shot cushion with a cool-as-can-be four-under 68 that has him in pole position to claim his fifth Tour title but first since the 2013 Shriners.
The chase pack is led by Danny Lee, who played perhaps the quietest round of the day — two birdies and 16 pars — to post 12 under. Dustin Johnson is two shots further back at 10 under. Five players are tied for fourth at nine under: Jason Dufner (after a six-under 66), Jimmy Walker (70), Xander Schauffele (71), Jason Day (71), and Charl Schwartzel (73).
After early fireworks from Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods, who shot up the leaderboard and electrified the galleries with twin 65s in the morning, it appeared as though the day could turn into a shootout — but that never materialized. As the wind picked up later in the day, scores stayed relatively high, making Simpson’s round that much more impressive.
The Charlotte, N.C., native started his day hot, sticking a wedge to eight feet and pouring that in for birdie. He added birdies at 4 and 9, but his day got a real boost at the 11th hole. After his second shot ran over the back of the green and into a bunker, Simpson played a delicate shot that trickled just over a ridge in the middle of the green and clanked off the center of the flag and in for an eagle 3.
Simpson shook off a bogey at 14 and made pars at 15 and 16 before stepping up to the tee at the island-green 17th, where he had rinsed one Friday evening with the course record in his sights. Not so this time: Simpson spun a wedge from the center of the green to three feet and had no trouble converting that for birdie.
One last test came at the Stadium course’s challenging finisher. Simpson’s approach found a devilish pot bunker short and right of the green, and after a decent escape from there, he poured a 17-footer for par into the center of the cup, punctuated by a fist pump.
So what now? Can anyone catch him — or, alternatively, can he come back to the field? Most of the trail pack played it cool, impressed with his score and downplaying their own chances.
“That’s an impressive three rounds,” Lee said. “It’s going very, very well for him. The scoreboard doesn’t affect me at all, I’m just out here playing golf and seeing what I can get.”
“I think I play the same no matter what,” Johnson said, though he added that no lead is necessarily safe. “If it’s windy tomorrow like it was today and you’re not very sharp, you’re going to struggle around here.”
Harold Varner III, who is tied to ninth after a two-under 70, added: “I think we all should be surprised. He’s beating the field by what, eight shots?“
Seven, actually, Harold, but with that cushion, what’s another shot?
Simpson himself acknowledged that this may be the best golf he has ever played — and, remember, this guy won a U.S. Open. But he also stressed the importance of staying in his routine.
“I’m trying to just look forward, you know, do what I always do on a Saturday night of a golf tournament and get ready tomorrow morning,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep going and take my chances when I can.”
One thing he knows for sure: Sunday is Mother’s Day, and Simpson knows his biggest fan will be dialed into the coverage. “She’ll be glued,” he said of his mother, Debbie. “She doesn’t miss many shots at all, if any.”