Jason Day set the 36-hole record at The Players Championship on Saturday morning. By the end of a long and laborious day of big numbers, he was hanging on by the seat of his pants on a TPC Sawgrass that was as frightening as ever.
Through it all, one aspect never changed: Day is in charge, and he looks like he will be tough to beat.
On a vastly different golf course with greens that felt like putting on glass compared with the previous two rounds, Day overcame two double bogeys with a strong back nine for a 1-over 73 to maintain his four-shot lead.
But what a wild ride.
Day four-putted from 18 feet for double bogey and made another double bogey when he blasted out of sand across the green into deep rough as his lead shrunk to one shot. From there, the world’s No. 1 player played 3 under with no bogeys over the final 10 holes to restore some semblance of order.
He was at 14-under 202. Any thoughts of adding to the record book were gone. But when a shootout turned into a survival, all that mattered was the lead.
Ken Duke turned in the best round of the tournament by making six birdies over his last seven holes for a 65, more than 10 shots better than the average score. He was four shots behind along with Hideki Matsuyama (67) and Alex Cejka (72).
“I’m just a player on the PGA Tour,” Duke said. “They’re all good out here, and when you get some good number and make some good putts, the scores are there. … But it was a great round. This golf course is very difficult with this condition, and it was a really unbelievable round.”
As tough as the greens were to putt — there were 148 three-putts or worse — the Stadium Course still presented its typical set of problems.
Russell Knox was trying to stay in the mix when he put three shots into the water on the island-green 17th and took a 9. That ruined his round (he shot 80) and his chances. Kevin Chappell was three shots behind when he had to play his second shot with his feet on the planks framing the water on the 18th hole. Having made two eagles, he closed with a double bogey to fall six shots back.
Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and defending champion Rickie Fowler all missed the cut when the storm-delayed second round was completed Saturday morning. If there was a consolation, it was not having to take on Sawgrass and its scariest.
Shane Lowry of Ireland, playing in the final group, played his opening four holes in 5 over. That feel-good story of tournament rookie Will Wilcox, who made the first hole-in-one in 14 years on the island-green 17th on Friday? He hit in the water Saturday to make double bogey and wound up with an 82.
Sergio Garcia took six putts from just off the sixth green. Paul Casey took five putts from about 8 feet on the 15th hole.
Day had his moments.
He finished his second round at 15-under 129, breaking by one the 36-hole record Greg Norman set in 1994. Day didn’t make a bogey until his 39th hole of the tournament. But that was inevitable.
“You had putts that never stopped,” Jhonattan Vegas said after a 79.
Day’s first blunder was a four-putt double bogey on the sixth hole, which started with an 18-foot birdie putt that he nearly made. It could have been worse. His 5-foot putt for double bogey nearly spun out of the cup. He answered with a wedge to 2 feet for birdie, but then had more trouble off the green at the par-3 eighth. This time, he had to make a 6-foot putt for double bogey.
And while his card was clean on the back nine, the biggest break of all came at the 15th. He was short of the green in three, certain to drop at least two shots, when Day chipped in from just over 50 feet for par. Then, he pounded a 3-wood and hit a towering 8-iron to 6 feet on the par-5 16th. He missed the putt and had to settle for birdie, made a 10-foot par putt on the 17th and finished with a solid par.
One more round, and no one is sure what to expect now.
The opening two rounds were soft and vulnerable, and the 163 rounds under par shattered the record in the 35 years The Players has been at TPC Sawgrass. Day (Thursday) and Colt Knost (Friday) tied the course record with a 63. Day broke the 36-hole record. Lowry and Rory McIlroy set a record with a 29 on the back nine.
Saturday was a different story.
The average score the opening two rounds was 71.02. It was 75.59 on Saturday. There were 82 rounds under par on Thursday, 81 rounds under par in the second round, and only six of them on Saturday.
Of the 76 players who made the cut at 2-under par, 60 of them had a double bogey or worse. There were 86 scores of double bogey or worse.
Day had two of them. And he still has a four-shot lead.