No. 17 a great equalizer

Matt Kuchar watches his ball go into the water on the 17th hole during the third round of the...

Matt Kuchar watches his ball go into the water on the 17th hole during the third round of the Players Championship yesterday. (Reuters)

Ian Hutchinson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:52 PM ET

Just when you thought somebody had created some kind of separation from the rest of the field, along comes the signature 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass.

It was there that Matt Kuchar, seemingly on his way to his third consecutive 68 on Saturday at the Players Championship, hit behind the ball to become only the fourth player of the day to plunk it into the water.

Kuchar recorded his bogey about the same time that Kevin Na birdied 16 right behind him and the two-shot lead that Kuchar enjoyed moments earlier quickly evaporated.

When Na birdied the 18th, it ended a bizarre day in which the twitching, wagglin’ wonder couldn’t decide when he wanted to pull the trigger on his shots, yet finished atop the leaderboard after his 68 pushed to him to 12 under, one ahead of Kuchar.

Na and Kuchar are the only players in the field to enjoy all three rounds in the 60s, but what they’ve failed to do is open up a comfortable margin between themselves and the rest of the field.

With all the balking and backing off that he did on Saturday, you’d be justified in wondering if Na can make it work again in the final round when shots become that much more critical.

It seems at this point that Na will either step up or blow up, with no in-between.

In contrast to the hyper Na, who had a bogey-free round, is the placid Kuchar, who didn’t let four bogeys spook him but instead replied with seven birdies for his 69. Kuchar seems more comfortable in his skin and with his game from tee to green.

So, it will be interesting to see how these contrasting personalities perform on Sunday, because there’s still a magnificent performance left out there, whether it comes from Na, Kuchar or anyone behind them who might crash this party.

One might be that swashbuckling Jack Sparrow lookalike whose 66 on Saturday was the round of the day. Rickie Fowler has gotten better by three each day as he goes for his second consecutive win after earning his first tour victory at Quail Hollow.

The styles may be remarkably different, but what stays the same is that whoever wins this can’t back off on Sunday. He’ll have to take his shot and live with the consequences.

THE BALLAD OF SAWGRASS

If you think CBS goes over the top in its genuflecting for Augusta National during the Masters, NBC may raise the bar this week with its pumping up of TPC Sawgrass, particularly the infamous 17th hole. That hyperbole came after a second round in which the 17th was only the 12th most-difficult hole on the golf course. At that point, the 18th was leading the 17th in balls plunked in the water 35-30 after the first two rounds. Never let reality get in the way of a good hype job ... Over the past 10 years, the most balls put into the drink on 17 came in 2007 when 93 were submerged. Last year, 40 were sunk ... While the tee shot on 17 is intimidating, what’s usually under-rated is the difficulty putting once you get it on the green ... The brown putting surfaces at Sawgrass may not look pretty, but the players are complimentary about the way they’re rolling ... One positive to yesterday’s NBC telecast was the back-and-forth between Phil Mickelson and his caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay on 17. That preceded Mickelson sticking it six feet from the pin, but he missed his birdie putt.’

FORGET IT THIS WEEK

Despite missing the cut, Rory McIlroy’s hold on the world No. 1 spot is safe for now, with Luke Donald and Lee Westwood each well off the lead ... Sergio Garcia made a strong charge up the leaderboard into a tie for 14th on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride. Garcia double bogeyed the second, birdied the third, then bogeyed the fourth. A birdie on six was then offset by a bogey on seven to leave him at two over. Six birdies after that front nine roller-coaster put Garcia at four-under for the day and the tournament ... Back at the Masters, Garcia proclaimed he isn’t good enough to win a major, but since he won the Players Championship in 2008, does that affect its reputation as the fifth major? ... Ben Curtis is still in contention after posting a two-under 70 on Saturday to sit in a tie for fourth overnight. Despite winning the 2003 British Open, Curtis is always a sleeper, but he has four top-15 finishes this year, including his win last month at the Texas Open, his fourth career tour victory and his first in six years ... Curtis’ university coach at Kent State, Herb Page of Markham, was inducted into the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame last week, along with former Royal Canadian Golf Association executive director Stephen Ross and six-time Canadian Mid-Amateur champ/renowned golf course architect Graham Cooke. Toronto radio personality Wally Crouter received the Lorne Rubenstein Award for outstanding media contributions ... Ian Poulter still has a long shot after inflating his first round score by 11 shots on Friday. After Poulter’s 65-76 in the first two rounds, he was one-under 71 on Saturday and he’s four under for the tournament. 


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