|Ian Poulter of England follows up his opening-round 65 with a nasty 76 yesterday, showing what a buzzsaw Sawgrass can be. (CHRIS KEANE/Reuters)
TORONTO - The distinguishing feature of Stephen Ames’ win at the 2006 Players Championship was his impressive back nine at TPC Sawgrass for a 67 and a runaway six-shot winning margin.
By the time this year’s edition concludes, similar fireworks may be required by the eventual winner, who comes out of the current traffic jam atop the leaderboard, where 25 players are within five shots of co-leaders Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Kevin Na.
Several of those players caught in the gridlock showed signs of Ames-like hot streaks yesterday. Johnson, the 2007 Masters champ, started the day at two under and reeled off three birdies in his first four holes, before taking a bogey on seven.
Then, he got hot.
On the back nine, he posted five birdies and even a bogey on 18 couldn’t spoil a six-under 66 that took him to the top at eight under. That bogey may come back to haunt him.
Na used a couple of birdie binges to offset four bogeys on his round yesterday. On his front nine, Na opened with a bogey, but birdied three of his next four holes before another bogey on seven. On the back, he recorded three straight birdies, bogeyed two more and had another bird on 17.
Meanwhile, Kuchar posted five birdies against one bogey for his second consecutive four-under round, so the birdies are out there.
The difference between what Ames did and what’s going on now is that Ames had the rest of the field wilt behind him. Obviously, there’s a full weekend ahead, but will moving day see the leaders separate themselves or will more players jump into contention?
Rickie Fowler, the winner of last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, put up eight birdies against four bogeys and is just four back, while the other Tiger Woods showed up and put up six birdies, including four straight, against two bogeys to make the cut at two-under.
So, the stage is set for the quintessential risk-reward scenario on a golf course that will graciously serve up birdies, but is renowned for its hospitality being a temptation to disaster.
Ian Poulter can attest to that after a day that included two bogeys, two double bogeys and a pair of birdies for a 76 that followed a first round 65.
It’s a classic example of what can happen at Sawgrass, where the temptation down the leaderboard will be to light it up, but just as likely is the possibility that the fireworks will fizzle and there will be some spectacular falls.
DEFINITELY NOT A MAJOR
The Players Championship’s reputation as the unofficial fifth major is very much like the aura surrounding its infamous 17th hole, not the most difficult, but one that has pizzazz with plunking balls in the water, jangled nerves and marquee value for the fans. The same goes for the tournament. It has a magnificent field, a treacherous golf course and the biggest purse in golf, but this is a rare case in golf in which money and image aren’t everything. The Players Championship is manufactured and doesn’t have the feel nor the history of a Masters or a British Open ... The island hole is a danger zone, but players have different opinions about what makes Sawgrass so tough. For Rory McIlroy, who missed the cut after being in a playoff at the Wells Fargo Championship the week before, the key to success is off the tee. “You have really got to position your ball in the fairway and give yourself at least a chance to get to some of these pins. I just didn’t do that over the last couple of days,” said McIlroy, who finished four over after scores of 72-76 and hit just 57.1% of fairways and 55.6% of his greens in regulation. He has yet to make the cut at Sawgrass in three tries. He didn’t play last year ... Johnson agrees with McIlroy’s assessment. “I think the key here is getting the ball in the fairway. The greens are small, the fairways are narrow, so you’ve got to get the ball in the fairway to control your spin into these greens because they’re so firm,” he said.
STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN
By shooting 76-74, Steve Stricker ended his run of 49 consecutive cuts made, the longest active streak on the PGA Tour. Before missing the cut at Sawgrass, his previous missed cut came at the 2009 PGA Championship ... Ernie Els had four top-15 finishes in his previous five starts, including his playoff loss to Jason Dufner at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, but he missed the cut after identical 74s left him four over par ... Luke Donald, still jousting with McIlroy for the No. 1 position in the world, recorded two eagles yesterday. Donald had at least a birdie on the par 5s yesterday, when he finished with a three-under 69. The flip-flopping will continue ... Former Canadian Open champion Scott Verplank withdrew with a wrist injury ... Charlie Wi shot a 67 yesterday. His previous best finish in four tries at Sawgrass was a tie for 41st last year. Wi is just two behind the leaders as he continues his quest for his first tour win. Wi tied for fourth at the Texas Open, but missed the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship before arriving at Sawgrass.