PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A scrambling par on the final hole allowed England’s Lee Westwood to keep the one-shot lead that he started with Saturday at The Players Championship.
Phil Mickelson suddenly is back in the picture, along with a possible No. 1 ranking. Tiger Woods is not.
Westwood, who fell two shots behind with six holes left in the third round, avoided the kind of mistakes on the back nine that slowed Heath Slocum and finished with a 2-under 70 to take a one-shot lead over Australian Robert Allenby going into the final round on the always unpredictable TPC Sawgrass.
Allenby was five shots behind when he walked off the 13th tee. He answered with a 6-iron to just outside 12 feet on the par-5 16th for eagle, then a 12-foot birdie on the island-green 17th that curled into the side of the cup. He shot a 67 and will play in the final group.
Westwood was at 14-under 202.
“The golf course changed a lot. It got really firm this afternoon,” Westwood said. “I thought I played well – gave myself a lot of chances, missed a couple, but all in all, I was pleased with the way I played. I didn’t make too many poor shots out there.”
He certainly didn’t on the 18th after his drive landed in a drain grate. He took a free drop, saw a gap in the trees and hit a 6-iron onto the green to give himself another shot at winning.
A month ago, Westwood had a one-shot lead over Mickelson going into the last round of the Masters.
Mickelson began the day nine shots out of the lead, the same as Woods.
They went opposite directions, however. Mickelson didn’t make a bogey until the final hole for a 66 to put himself back into the picture, just five shots behind Westwood. The 10 players ahead of him have a combined 14 victories on the PGA Tour.
“I feel like things started to click a little bit today, and I think I’ve got one more low round in me,” Mickelson said. “I just hope that it will be enough, that I’ll be within striking distance.”
To reach No. 1 for the first time in his career, Mickelson has to win and have Woods finish out of the top five. Woods did hit part with a bogey-bogey finish for a 71 that put him 10 shots behind in a tie for 45th. His final bogey came after Woods popped up another 3-wood and had to hit fairway metal to the green.
It was the second time this week he hit a fairway metal for his second shot to a par 4.
“I had it going for a little bit,” Woods said. “I thought if I could have birdied 16 and 17, I’d have been right back in the tournament.”
Even for the 14 players separated by five shots, so much depends on Westwood and Allenby.
U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover, the only player in the top 10 with a major, didn’t make a birdie until the ninth hole in his round of 69. He was at 12-under 204, along with Torrey Pines winner Ben Crane (68) and Francesco Molinari of Italy, who had a 71.
Slocum, who won the opening playoff event last year against a cast of stars, ran off three birdies in four holes around the turn to reach 15 under until a three-putt from the fringe below a steep ridge on the 13th changed everything. Slocum also bogeyed the 15th, then dumped his tee shot into the water on the par-3 17th for a double bogey. After all that work, he shot 72.
“What I’m going to have to do tomorrow is play perfect and finish strong,” Slocum said.
His poor finish put him at 11-under 205, three shots behind and tied with Tim Clark (66), Charley Hoffman (69) and Chris Stroud (66), a newcomer to this stage.
Westwood closed out both of his nines well. He hit a towering 5-wood over the trees on the par-5 ninth for a simple up-and-down for birdie, then the 6-iron on the 18th through the trees. His lone birdie on the back required a small break when his tee shot went through some pines and left him only an 8-iron to the green at the par-5 16th.
Allenby’s only blemish on the back nine looked ugly – a bladed lob wedge through the 12th green. He was in a divot in the rough, however, and wasn’t bothered by the bogey.
Even as he walked off the tee and saw Slocum in the group behind approaching at 15 under – five shots ahead – Allenby didn’t panic.
“That’s the thing,” Allenby said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen out there. All you can do is just play your own golf. But I knew I had to push it a little bit just to try to get within reach. Obviouslyly, the leaderboard changed a couple of times through the back nine. Luckily for me, I did well on the finishing holes.”