A Long Sprint to the Finish


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The golf course David Toms built a one-stroke advantage on no longer exists, transformed by an imperfect storm some 80 miles across with 40 mph salvos.

In its place came a dartboard, soft and squishy and ripe for the PGA Tour’s bombing best – a racetrack made sloppy by an inch of rain and a 4 1/2-hour delay. In short, Mother Nature rained on Toms’ best-case scenario. And it didn’t take long, which was good because time is not on the Tour’s side.

By the time Toms teed off at The Players Championship well past dinner on the east coast, Martin Kaymer had tied him for the lead, and before he reached the third tee he was trailing Nick Watney.

What remains is a sprint masquerading as a marathon, with the leaders Watney and Graeme McDowell facing a 31-hole Sunday and a leaderboard that features nine players within three shots of the top spot.

That it will come on a track primed for scoring only adds to the volatility of the situation.

“I’m not saying it will be a score-fest tomorrow, but it will be much more score-able than it would be,” said McDowell, who was 3 under for the round through five holes when play was halted. “I can see somebody shooting 62, 63 tomorrow. It’s really opened up the field.”

When play was halted at 1:02 p.m. Toms & Co. hadn’t even started warming up. By the time the horn blew it seemed as if the soft conditions had heated up the entire field.

In an apropos metaphor for what’s to come, Ian Poulter finished the day sprinting – really, he was sprinting – to beat darkness and a five bells wake-up call Sunday morning. The Englishman ran to his tee shot on the 17th hole, putted out for par and sprinted to the 18th tee box to tee off before the horn blew.

“If duty calls you have to get to the 18th tee,” he smiled. “I saved a 5:30 (a.m.) wake-up call. That’s four hours in bed; 300 yards to sprint is worth four hours in bed.”

The race will be much further for an eclectic cast on Sunday, particularly Toms who had dissected a bouncy TPC Sawgrass layout for two days with a ballstriking display that mitigated his lack of power.

That advantage is now gone, but the 44 year old seemed to be taking the rub of forecast in stride.

“It’s going to be a long day tomorrow, especially for the old guy,” said Toms, who was even through five holes and is tied for third place. “If you’re playing well a lot of time you kind of forget how many holes you have to play.”

If it’s any consolation, the last time there was a rain delay at THE PLAYERS Championship was 2005, the year 48-year-old Fred Funk won. That he has a who’s who cast assembled around him, however, will not make an early cast call any easier.

Veteran Steve Stricker is tied with Toms at 10 under, one shot back, followed by K.J. Choi (9 under), resurgent Lucas Glover (9 under), world No. 1 in waiting Marting Kaymer (8 under) and Luke Donald (8 under).

If only the May Players – now in the fifth year of its new date – didn’t look so much like the March version. For decades, the Tour’s marquee stop was beset by weather problems on swamp land that didn’t lend itself to the type of conditions Pete Dye envisioned when he built the Stadium Course.

The move to May and a state-of-the-art drainage and Sub-Air system have largely delivered the desired conditions and a list of winners that range from the pounder (Phil Mickelson) to the plodder (Tim Clark).

But Toms’ perfect storm gave way to Saturday’s deluge and one of the most wide-open Sunday finishes in years.

“You just have to be a little more aggressive at times,” Toms reasoned as dusk settled in. “There’s a lot of pressure out there the last nine holes. You’ve got to hit a lot of shots.”

And deal with a lot of company atop the leaderboard at an event that has been transformed into a foot race on a wet track.