After storms that delayed the third round by 4 1/2 hours and softened the TPC Sawgrass, Watney and McDowell came out firing in the twilight to reach 11-under par through only five holes when play was suspended by darkness.
The biggest move all day might have been a pine that toppled by a big gust during the thunderstorms.
David Toms, the 36-hole leader who had to wait until dinner time to tee off, only made it through five holes. He made all pars, and probably was happy to stop. Toms had birdie putts inside 12 feet on every hole—two of them inside 7 feet – and missed them all to stay at 10 under. Steve Stricker also was at 10 under after two birdies.
Only 40 players managed to finish the third round.
That included Ian Poulter, who had reason to be exhausted for other reasons. Realizing that play was going to be stopped, and not wanting to return at 7:45 a.m. Sunday to finish one hole, he sprinted to the 17th green and quickly two-putted for par, then ran off toward the 18th tee and hit his tee shot as the group in front was just leaving the tee.
It’s a common move in tournament golf – once any player in a group tees off, the entire group is allowed to finish the hole. Poulter finished with a bogey for a 74, but at least he gets to sleep in. So does his playing partner, Dustin Johnson, who shot 73.
“A little 300-yard sprint is well worth four hours in bed,” Poulter said.
The third round is to resume Sunday morning, and threesomes then will be sent out in the afternoon. With some 30 holes remaining and so many top players in the hunt, rarely has a final day been this wide open.
“I could see someone going and shooting 62, 63 tomorrow,” McDowell said. “I think there’s a low score on this golf course, depending on what the wind does tomorrow. But it really has opened the field up a little bit. It’s going to be exciting.”
It already was even with the little golf that was played.
Sean O’Hair, who had missed his last five cuts, birdied his last two holes for a 67 to post the best 54-hole score Saturday at 7-under 209, but only because the leaders didn’t even reach the turn.
Peter Hanson bogeyed the last hole for a 66. Phil Mickelson barely finished, just not the way he would have liked. He made eagle on the 16th, followed with a birdie on the 17th and then ended with a bogey for a 69. He was at 5-under 211.
“I had a good finish until that bogey on 18,” Mickelson said. “That eagle on 16 and birdie on 17 got me into position where I thought you never know what might happen on Sunday. So I’ve got to go low.”
Martin Kaymer, who can return to No. 1 in the world by winning this week, might have had the most wild 12 holes of his season. He opened with four straight birdies by a combined 6 feet of length—the longest was 3 1/2 feet, two of them inside a foot. He tied for the lead by making a 10-foot birdie on the seventh, then ran off three straight bogeys to drop back.
Kaymer played 12 holes and made only three pars.
Such scoring was not evident the first two steamy days, played under sunshine. But after nearly an inch of rain fell during the long delay, they might as well have called this the TPC Cupcake.
McDowell, Watney and everyone else were firing at flags and watching their shots stay around the hole. Robert Allenby, who had a 68, said he hit a 5-wood about 6 feet short of the flag on the 16th and it only moved a few feet.
The course drained beautifully, however, so the shots from the fairway were clean. That’s why scores were low, and it could turn into quite the shootout Sunday.
McDowell started with a birdie, then wasted a good chance on the par-5 second when he used a hybrid to bump his ball up the slope from behind the green and knocked it 20 feet by the hole. But he chipped in on the third for birdie and hit another good iron to about 7 feet on the fifth to join Watney in the lead.
Watney, the winner of a World Golf Championship at Doral two months ago, could have started even better. He knocked in a 15-foot birdie putt on the first, hit a bunker shot across the second green to tap-in range, then faced the par-3 third hole into the setting sun.
He hit the shot, looked up and was blinded.
“Where did it go?” he asked.
“Right at it,” Toms replied.
The ball settled 4 feet away, and Toms followed with a shot he couldn’t see to just outside 5 feet. Both missed their putts.
Stricker birdied the first and last holes he completed, and had a 65-foot birdie putt on the sixth when play was stopped. Like everyone else, he’s bracing for a long Sunday.
“You’ve got to take it easy tomorrow,” he said. “Come out with some intensity, but knowing that you have a long day.”
Hanson might have had the toughest time when play resumed. He was 7 under for his round through 16 holes and on his way to the fearsome island-green 17th when play was suspended. Then he waited four hours before going out to the range, and the last shot he worked on was an easy pitching wedge. It’s just hard to imagine an island on the driving range.
To the front pin at 17, his wedge nearly spun back off the green and he two-putted from the edge for par. His drive on the 18th went into the trees, and Hanson wound up missing an 8-foot par putt.
“Seventeen and 18 is a tough finish,” Hanson said. “But it’s an even harder start.”