Stars not aligned for Players final round

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – If PGA Tour officials wanted to prove their marketing savvy, they’d tee the bottom half of the leaderboard off last on Sunday and let the leaders head out with the sunrise.

The bottom 10 players heading into the final round have a combined 25 major championship titles on the collective shelf, while the top 10 have a combined 22 Tour victories.

Instead of Rory, Jordan, TW or Phil, the "fifth major" has delivered Ryo, BillyHo and JT - that’s Thomas, not Timberlake. It will be a “who’s this?” finish at an event that prides itself on a “who’s who” field.

But short of a monumental policy change, it will be Chris Kirk who will anchor Sunday’s tee sheet alone atop the pack at 10 under par on a leaderboard that is as bunched as Turn 3 at Talladega.

Ryo Ishikawa, Billy Horschel and Justin Thomas lurk within three strokes – which at the Stadium Course is akin to a single swing at the wrong time – while the likes of Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson will either be watching the action from home or, in Woods’ case, finished well before a meaningful shot is hit.


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But then it should be pointed out that what this Players lacks in name recognition it has salvaged with wild volatility and congestion that makes A1A look like a country road.

Consider that when Kirk sat down with the media for his post-round chitchat he was tied for the lead with Kevin Na, who had just teed off on the 18th hole. Before Kirk was finished talking Na had plummeted into a tie for fifth place with a double bogey-6 at the last and the uncertainty that has defined this event continued.

While the leaderboard may lack the proper marquee to move the needle for some, consider that 30 players are within five strokes of Kirk, a list that includes the likes of Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott.

It’s all part of the calling card of a winding golf course that defies a runaway.

“It seems like half the Tour could win this thing it’s so bunched ... Everyone sort of plays from the same positions, no style of game really has an advantage out here,” said McIlroy, who is tied for 17th at 6 under after a 70 on Saturday.

“It’s definitely to do with the golf course and the golf course setup that it is the way it is.”

Yet while the Stadium Course may cultivate traffic jams, for McIlroy and Scott, their chances of adding a measure of star power to the event with a Sunday surge appeared slim.

“I’m going to need that Davis Love kind of round,” said Scott, referring to Love’s victory at TPC Sawgrass in 2003 when the future U.S. Ryder Cup captain rallied from two shots back to win with a closing 64.

Garcia, a winner here in 2008, would appear to be the most likely option at 8 under par after a third-round 67, but the Spaniard didn’t exactly exude confidence when asked about his chances.

“I feel like I easily left on average three shots out there every round,” said Garcia, who has waffled between two putters and two putting grips this week. “You can’t think what could have been, but it is what it is. I just got to deal with it and try to do the best with what I have and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Which leaves a largely unproven list of would-be champions to carry the load on Sunday.

Kirk has been under the spotlight before, specifically last season when he won the Deutsche Bank Championship and lost the FedEx Cup title to Horschel at East Lake, but he’s struggled this season with just a single top-10 finish in 2015.

Not that Kirk cared who was behind him or how close they were, not at TPC Sawgrass where a lapse in attention can be a much more concerning hazard than sand or salt water.

“I don’t really plan on looking at the leaderboard a whole lot at all tomorrow,” said Kirk, whose third-round 68 left him a stroke ahead of Kevin Kisner, Ben Martin and Bill Haas. “I mean, it’s not like you can ever get comfortable anyways, so what’s the point?

“If you’ve got a six-shot lead at the turn, you’re not going to be comfortable playing that back nine just because of the way the golf course is.”

Kirk will be paired with Kisner in an all-University of Georgia final. The two also share the same swing coach, Scott Hamilton, which at least partially explains the matter-of-fact take when Kisner was asked about dealing with the Sunday pressure at such an important event.

“If we’ve all gotten here, we’ve done Tour [Q-School], we’ve won tournaments,” said Kisner, who scrambled to make the cut with a closing nine of 31 on Friday and moved into contention with an opening nine of 31 on Saturday. “Just because it’s a bigger stage doesn’t mean we’re going to suck all of a sudden.”

Nor does a Sunday leaderboard with a less-than-ideal “Q Score” mean that Sunday will ... well, you know.