PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kevin Na dropped his club and placed his hands on his hips as he watched his tee shot, certain that it was going to come up short of the island. Disappointment gave way to an embarrassed smile when he saw the ball settle 6 feet next to the flag.
That one shot summed up a warm and wild afternoon Saturday at The Players Championship.
For most players, nothing was ever as bad as it seemed.
Or as good.
Chris Kirk felt his round slipping away when he missed a short birdie putt and followed that with two straight bogeys to fall out of the top 10. Three consecutive birdies later, he was on his way to a 4-under 68 and a one-shot lead going into the final round.
But that’s like having no lead at all. Not with two dozen players — Rory McIlroy, among them — within four shots of the lead.
Na was never too far from the lead, and he was tied when he was on the tee at the par-3 17th and hit slightly behind the ball, took up more of the earth than he intended and thought to himself, “Oh, boy.”
He was waiting for a splash. Instead, he heard a cheer.
And then he gave what was believed to be the first interview while going to the island green. He chased down Roger Maltbie of NBC, who said to him, “You gave up on it.”
“No I didn’t,” Na said. “I hit it fat. And then I saw it fly and thought, ‘You know, this might get there.'”
“Never let them see you sweat, pal,” Maltbie replied.
There could be plenty of sweating Sunday in a championship that is up for grabs.
“It seems like half the tour has a chance to win this thing,” McIlroy said after a 70 put him four shots behind.
Tiger Woods was part of the other half. He made the wrong kind of history Saturday by making two double bogeys on par 5s for the first time in his career, leading to a 75 that matched his worst score at the TPC Sawgrass. Woods was 13 shots behind and chose not to share his thoughts on the day.
Na missed the birdie putt on 17, and then he three-putted for a double bogey on No. 18 for a 72 that dropped him from a tie for the lead to a tie for fifth, another example of how volatile in the leaderboard looked all day.
What made Saturday so unpredictable was neither the Stadium Course nor the variety of shots, rather a leaderboard crammed with so many players that it was hard to keep track who was coming and who was going.
Ben Martin fell out of the lead with a bogey on the 18th for a 68, leaving him one shot behind along with Kevin Kisner (67) and Bill Haas (68). Justin Thomas was tied for the lead, but that was before the leaders teed off. The 22-year-old rookie set a Stadium Course record with 10 birdies in his round of 65 and was two behind, along with Sergio Garcia (67), Scott Brown (69), David Heard (70), Jerry Kelly (72) and Na.
Woods at least was in good company.
He was part of an All-Star cast at the bottom of the leaderboard. The last 10 players have combined for 153 wins on the PGA Tour and 27 majors. The top 10 going into Sunday have combined for 23 tour wins and no majors.
Adding to the dynamic is that three players within two shots of the lead are at The Players for the first time.
“We had a little survey of the first-timers — ‘Who do you pick besides yourself to win?’ — and I picked Ben Martin,” Kisner said. “No, man, everybody talks about pressure and nerves and all that, but we’ve been through it all. If we’ve gotten here, we’ve done tour school, we’ve won tournaments. Just because it’s a bigger stage doesn’t mean we’re going to (stink) all of a sudden. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
It starts with Kirk because he’s the 54-hole leader at 10-under 206.
Then again, it might not.
Rickie Fowler, who survived a double bogey and three bogeys for a 71, was in the group three shots behind. He will have played six or seven holes on Sunday before the last group hits their first tee shot. Thomas hit 7-iron from 192 yards into 3 feet for his 10th birdie of the day on the 18th hole to tie Na and Kelly before they started.
“It was one of the best rounds I’ve probably ever played in competition,” Thomas said. “To do it at a stage like this and a field like this and a golf course like this, to get back in the tournament was big.”
Woods, who said he was one round away from narrowing the gap on the lead, widened it. He hit a smother-hook off the tee at the par-5 second hole that bounced off a tree and settled in the rough 105 yards from the tee. His other double bogey was on No. 9, where he took three hacks out of the rough-covered mounds to advance the ball some 60 feet. He made only two birdies.
It was easy to press. The leaderboard looked like a California freeway at rush hour. Kirk was going in the wrong direction when he missed a short birdie putt on the 12th, and made bogeys on the next two holes.
“I had a chance to sort of lose it a little bit today,” Kirk said. “But I didn’t let it bother me, and thankfully was able to birdie the next three to pull out a great round.”
And now he gets to do it one more time, with a $10 million purse and five-year tour exemption riding on the outcome.
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