Just about every player who had at least a share of the lead stumbled in the end, some worse than others.
Mickelson found dry land on the island-green 17th, then saved par from the right rough on the closing hole at TPC Sawgrass for an even-par 72 that gave him a one-shot lead over Nathan Green of Australia.
Peter Lonard took two double bogeys on his back nine, Carl Petterson finished bogey-bogey and Sean O'Hair three-putted the 18th to lose costly shots, leaving them two shots behind and chasing Mickelson, who was happy only with his position.
'It was a day that if I played well, I could have pulled away,' Mickelson said after finishing at 5-under 139, the first time he has had the lead at THE PLAYERS going into the weekend. 'I'm half disappointed and half OK.'
Tiger Woods tried to fight back, but he did a better job with his words than his clubs.
Woods finally picked up a birdie on his second hole, but he spent most of the sunny afternoon wondering if he would make the cut. He wasn't in the clear until a two-putt birdie on the 16th hole, dry land on the 17th and another par save for a 73, leaving him at 4-over 148 to make it by one stroke.
His best shot was directed at Rory Sabbatini, who said Thursday that the world's No. 1 player looked 'as beatable as ever' and that he likes the 'new Tiger' who struggles with his swing.
'If I remember the quote correctly, he said he likes the new Tiger,' Woods said. 'I figure I've won nine of 12 (PGA TOUR events), and I've won three times this year -- the same amount he's won in his career. So, I like the new Tiger, as well.'
Sabbatini didn't understand all the fuss.
'I never intended it as a dig at Tiger. I basically stated that I want to compete against him,' he said. 'He is the No. 1 player in the world, and I think I have the ability to get to No. 1 in the world, and that's where I want to contend.'
Both of them have their work cut out.
Sabbatini looked like a day-old Tiger by failing to make a birdie. He still was in the mix until he stepped to the 17th tee and deposited two balls in the water -- one from the drop area -- on his way to a quadruple-bogey 7 and a 79.
Green was one of the few players who finished strong, dropping only one shot in swirling wind for a 69 to finish at 140 and get into the final group with Mickelson on Saturday.
Lonard (72), O'Hair (69), Petterson (71) and Rod Pampling (71) were at 141.
Mickelson has hit only 11 fairways the first two rounds -- only Retief Goosen with eight has hit fewer -- but he is getting by with a solid short game that the Stadium Course allows because of tightly mown collection areas around the green, his specialty.
He dropped out of the lead with bogeys on the seventh and eighth hole, then hit the flag with a wedge on the par-5 ninth, getting a break when the ball only caromed 6 feet away to set up birdie. Mickelson also hit the flag on the 14th hole, another good break, as the ball likely was headed through the green.
But there was no luck involved on the par-5 16th.
After a perfectly played drive, he took 6-iron from 208 yards and caught the slope on the first bounce, which fed the ball to 6 feet for an eagle putt that put him back in the lead.
'Just enough draw to catch that swale,' Lefty said.
The wind wasn't nearly as strong, but it swirled and teased. Sunshine baked the course, and it figures to get firmer over the weekend. Only 15 players remained under par, and two dozen players were within five shots of the lead on a course where anything can happen at just about any time.
The island green didn't claim nearly as many victims in the second round -- only 21 on Friday, making that 71 for the week to break the tournament record with two rounds left. Even so, the penalty was just as stiff.
Former Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman holed out for eagle from 163 yards on the 15th hole to get within two shots of the lead. Two holes later, his perfect record on the meanest par 3 at Sawgrass was over. Having never found the water in 55 previous attempts, this one went over the back, down the ramp and into the lake. He played a brilliant pitch up the grassy walkway for bogey.
Lehman had a 73 and was in the group at 1-under 143 that included Jim Furyk (72) and Rocco Mediate (71).
Furyk also struggled on his closing holes and hit the water, but his was on the front nine. He was one shot out of the lead until pulling his approach so badly on No. 7 that it hit off the bank and into water, leading to a double bogey.
'No golf professional should ever hit it in that body of water,' Furyk said.
He also took bogey on the par-3 eighth by hitting out to the right, and wound up with a 72, still in the hunt. And that's they way he looked at his position, no matter how his round ended.
'I'm disappointed, but I've done a lot right,' Furyk said. 'That's the mental battle. If I would have made a bogey and a double bogey early today and played the rest of the way around and shot even par, everyone would have been congratulating me for playing a good round here. I made those mistakes at the end, and everyone kind of expects me to jump off a bridge.'
Woods didn't find much to like about his game. He didn't hit the ball well and still struggled on the greens. His only two birdies of the round came on par 5s.
'I just need to shoot some good rounds,' Woods said. 'I just can't afford to make the mistakes I've made. For 36 holes, I've only made two birdies. Not very good.'
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