PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Jordan Spieth repeatedly pumped his fist when his 12-foot par putt dropped into cup on the final hole, a clutch moment worthy of celebration for two reasons. It gave him a third straight bogey-free round at The Players Championship and a share of the lead Saturday with Martin Kaymer.
Spieth was even more impressive when he got into trouble off the tee late in a demanding round. The 20-year-old Texan missed his last four fairways and saved par each time, giving him a 1-under 71 in increasingly tougher conditions at the TPC Sawgrass.
Not since Greg Norman won The Players in 1994 has anyone played the opening three rounds without a bogey.
Kaymer held his own for much of the warm, blustery afternoon. He had a two-shot lead at the turn, but failed to take advantage of the par 5s on the back nine. He missed a par putt from just inside 10 feet on the 18th hole for an even-par 72.
They were at 12-under 204, three shots ahead of former Players winner Sergio Garcia (69) and John Senden (68).
The final twosome of Spieth and Kaymer combined for two bogeys, three birdies and 31 pars, not the kind of golf one expects to see on a course that provides so much theater. In firmer conditions, it was a solid brand of golf by both.
Spieth has shown no letdown since his runner-up finish at the Masters a month ago. He will have a chance to become the youngest winner of The Players, and it won’t be unfamiliar territory. Along with his strong play at Augusta National, he was in the hunt at three other tournaments this year.
But the final hour was the most challenging for him.
Spieth was so far right on the 14th hole that he was closer to the 12th fairway. Unable to see the last 200 yards of the 14th hole, he ripped a hybrid off a slope and sprinted up the hill to find it about pin-high in a bunker. He feared for the worse when his wedge sailed over the green on the par-5 16th, but it bounced softly enough that it didn’t go in the water, and he hit a superb chip to about 4 feet.
And on the 18th, he punched out of the rough between two trees to about 55 yards, played a pitch that ran through the green and just onto the fringe, and holed it for par.
“I was all over the place,” Spieth said. “In order to win, I’m going to have to drive the ball better. Today, I got the breaks, got the bounces, and made the 3- and 4-footers to stay alive. I’m not going to be able to keep doing that.”
Kaymer three-putted from the fringe on No. 4 on a difficult putt from 30 feet. He bounced back with a 15-foot birdie on No. 7 and an up-and-down from the back bunker to a back pin on the par-5 ninth to build a two-shot lead.
But the 29-year-old German missed two birdie chances on the par 5s. He was on the back of the green, 80 feet away, for eagle on No. 11 and left his putt some 10 feet short. He three-putted for par. From a collection area just left of the 16th green, he tried a full flop shot over a pot bunker and it came out too soft and into the shaggy grass framing the sand. Kaymer did well to save par.
Even so, he was tied for the lead. For a former world No. 1 who has gone winless for more than two years, the view wasn’t too bad.
Sizing up Sunday, he figured it would be important to take advantage of the par 5s “and then stay cool and calm on 17 and 18th.”
“It’s very important that you enjoy the day,” Kaymer said. “It’s a rare opportunity that you’re in the leading group one of the biggest tournaments we play all year.”
At stake is a $1.8 million payoff, a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and a three-year exemption to the Masters and British Open.
This course gets tougher on the weekend, though, especially today. And there were still plenty of players poised to either make a run or be waiting if either of the leaders slip up.
Garcia turned a birdie chance into a bogey on the 17th hole by missing a short putt. He did enough right in his round of 69 that he will have another chance to experience the thrills on the back nine of Sawgrass. Along with winning in 2008, he was tied for the lead going to the 17th hole last year until hitting three balls in the water the rest of the way as Tiger Woods went on to win.
Senden won at Innisbrook earlier in the year and played the par 5s in 5 under, including an eagle at No. 9.
Justin Rose was in the group at 7-under 209 until it was determined after his round that his ball moved slightly before he chipped it on the 18th. That turned his par into a double bogey and he wound up seven shots behind.