Toms went 25 holes before making a bogey Friday and countered with enough good shots for a 4-under 68, giving him a one-shot lead over Nick Watney going into what figures to be another wild weekend on the TPC Sawgrass.
Watney won a World Golf Championship two months ago at Doral, punctuated by a birdie on the tough closing hole. Despite missing four birdie putts inside 12 feet on his last seven holes, he got into the final group.
Luke Donald, the World Golf Championship winner at Arizona in February, became the first player since 2004 to make it around Sawgrass without a bogey for the first 36 holes. He birdied the island-green 17th and shot 67 to finish two shots behind.
Also two shots behind:
– U.S. Open champion and Ryder Cup star Graeme McDowell, who is back on track after a dismal April.
– Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover, riding high after his win last week at Quail Hollow.
– Steve Stricker, who has won two FedEx Cup playoff events and has become a regular among the top 10 in the world.
“Whoever plays the best on the weekend,” Glover said, as good of an answer as anyone can provide.
Toms quite trying to be perfect on a course that looks like it demands no less. It led to nearly perfect play over two days at The Players, and pole position going into the weekend.
Toms doesn’t have a great record at TPC Sawgrass. In 18 previous attempts, he has missed the cut 10 times and only once has finished in the top 10. He just couldn’t figure out the right angle into the greens, and always believed it had to be just right.
“It seemed early in my career around here I was always trying to play the perfect shot,” he said. “I think the last few years, I’ve just learned to try to play my game, my shot … rather than trying to hit the perfect shot on the golf course.”
Watney did his best to catch him.
He started the back nine with back-to-back birdies, then gave himself a chance on every hole. Watney missed four birdie putts inside 12 feet over his last seven holes, settling for 71 after opening with a 64. His emotions showed what this place can do for you.
“I’m not exactly happy,” Watney said, before ending his remarks with, “I’m excited where I am.”
Toms was at 10-under 134, leading a quality list of contenders at the biggest event of golf’s strongest tour.
Looming particularly large was Donald, the Englishman who can go to No. 1 in the world with a victory. He has only been out of the top 10 once since last September. Perhaps even more impressive this week is that Donald hasn’t made a bogey all week.
“I think it’s an accomplishment anywhere,” Donald said. “This is a tough course. There is a lot of danger lurking. It is pretty easy to slip up around this course. So it’s pretty satisfying to go without making a bogey 36 holes.
Four major champions are among the top 10 – one of them is Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, a two-time winner of The Players who was three back going into the weekend. All but Toms among the top six have won tournaments in the last year.
Even with Tiger Woods long departed after withdrawing Thursday, there was no shortage of drama.
A fan offered to be lifted down into the lake off the 18th tee to retrieve Michael Bradley’s driver when it came out of his hands. Mark Wilson called a two-shot penalty on himself for a double-hit – even though video evidence was inconclusive – which caused him to miss the cut. Jonathan Byrd challenged a bad time he received, and had Rory Sabbatini argue on his behalf.
The cut came at even-par 144, and even that featured some tough moments. Ernie Els, inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday, was in front of the par-5 ninth in two, flubbed a chip and missed a 4-foot putt to make bogey and miss the cut by one.
Then there was the scorecard of Phil Mickelson – a 31 on the front to get within two shots of the lead, a 40 on the back to settle for a 71 and linger eight shots out of the lead.
For all the putts he missed, Watney got a pair of good breaks. On the par-5 11th, his ball was headed into deep rough short of the green when he noticed it slightly plugged and covered with mud. It was determined to be in his pitch mark, so he was able to take a drop and wipe the golf ball clean, then chipped up to 4 feet for birdie.
“I would have lot a lot of money had I bet on a ball plugging today,” he said. “It was a great break and I took advantage of it.”
He was in deep rough on the 15th, but the ball landed in a divot, leaving him a clean shot that he could spin. This time, though, he missed a 7-footer. And in a mental blunder, Watney was over his 6-foot birdie putt on the 16th to tie for the lead when he heard the cheer for Bubba Watson making a long birdie on the island-green 17th. He pulled back the putter and missed it badly to the left.
No matter. He’s one shot behind, confident of adding to a World Golf Championship he won earlier this year at Doral.
Watson, meanwhile, shot a 66 to easily make the cut, and Sergio Garcia rallied for a 68 to make it to the weekend.
So did McDowell, which didn’t used to be big news.
His U.S. Open victory last summer at Pebble Beach set up a dream year for McDowell. He won the decisive singles match in the Ryder Cup to lead Europe to another win, then ended the season by coming from four shots behind to beat Tiger Woods in the Chevron World Challenge in a playoff.
Fortunes can change quickly in this game, and so can the confidence. McDowell missed three of his last four cuts on the PGA Tour before The Players, and he was starting to wonder what was going wrong.
“You go through a spell like I’ve just gone through where I just couldn’t piece anything together, you have crazy thoughts. ‘Will I ever win again? Will I ever be in contention again? Am I done? Am I finished?’ It’s just the craziness of this sport,” he said. “You never know what’s around the corner.”
That much still holds true going into the weekend.