PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Mackenzie Hughes (68) of Dundas, Ont., and Adam Hadwin (71) of Abbotsford, B.C., were tied for 33rd at 5-under after todays round at the Players Championship.
Webb Simpson isn’t aware of the records he has tied or broken at The Players Championship. He saw that Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth each made a big charge before he teed off Saturday, and it didn’t rattle him at all.
“I think it helped me a little bit continue to think about making birdies,” he said.
Simpson had a plan and didn’t back off until he holed an 18-foot par on the final hole for a 4-under 68. He stretched his lead to a record seven shots, tied Greg Norman’s 54-hole score at The Players that had not been touched in 24 years and left himself one more round to capture the richest prize in golf.
Simpson started with an 8-foot birdie. He holed a 100-foot bunker shot for eagle.
And that island green on the par-3 17th that ruined his bid for the record score at the TPC Sawgrass the previous day? With a front pin in the bowl, he hit sand wedge and listened to thousands of fans surrounding the green cheer as the ball trickled down the slope to 3 feet for birdie.
It added to a 19-under 197, the score Norman had after three rounds in 1994 on a rain-softened course.
And the 32-year-old Simpson has history on his side: No one has ever lost a seven-shot lead in the final round in PGA Tour history.
“All those things that have happened, I’d love to know them if I win tomorrow,” Simpson said. “But I’m trying not to dwell there. I’m trying to just look forward, do what I always do on a Saturday night of a golf tournament and get ready tomorrow morning. And that’s kind of where I’m at.”
Danny Lee was leading the B-Flight with a bogey-free round of 70, but with birdies only on the two par 5s on the back nine. He will be in the final group.
“Just got to keep my hat down and play my own game and … I don’t know, where is he at?” Lee asked. Told that Simpson was 19 under, Lee digested that and responded, “That’s an impressive three rounds, I think. It’s going very, very well for him.”
Woods had his best round on the Stadium Course with a 65 despite playing the final six holes in 1 over. Spieth made two bogeys in his round of 65 as both charged up the leaderboard in the morning with big crowds and loud cheers.
They went from a tie for 68th to a tie for ninth. But they made up only three shots on Simpson and were 11 shots behind.
Dustin Johnson at least improved his chances of staying for No. 1 with four birdies over his final 10 holes for a 69. He was in third place, nine shots behind and figured all he could do Sunday was go as low as he could and see where it led.
Johnson is among six players to lose a six-shot lead in the final round, last fall in Shanghai. And with danger lurking at every corner on the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course, that would suggest that the crystal and largest paycheque in golf – just shy of $2 million – doesn’t belong to Simpson just yet.
He just hasn’t shown any signs of cracking.
Lee was at 204, a score that would have led The Players in all but three of the years since it moved to May in 2007.
“If you take Webb out of the equation, the golf course is playing about like it always does,” Johnson said. “He’s the only one that’s going really low.”
Jason Day, among those at 9-under 207, had a four-shot lead when he won The Players two years ago. He knows what it’s like to play with big leads, to win big.
“The good thing about Webb is he’s played well, he doesn’t have to do too much out there, he has to keep it in front of him,” Day said. “Don’t take unnecessary risk and just kind of shoot 72 or somewhere in between 70, 72. You don’t really need to go into the 60s.”
Simpson hasn’t won since Las Vegas in the fall of 2013, most of that due to struggles with the ban on the anchored stroke he used with his belly putter. The big break came a year ago when Tim Clark suggested that along with a putter grip that rested along his left forearm, he use a claw grip.
“I’m thankful that I’ve put together a year of pretty solid putting, and it’s really helped my golf kind of get me to the player that I want to be,” Simpson said.
For one morning, Woods created the biggest buzz of the week.
He ran off four birdies in five holes at the start of his round, made the turn in 30 and then added a two-putt birdie at No. 11 and a pitch to 8 feet on the short 12th. He was in range of the course record that eluded Simpson on Saturday. Woods didn’t do anything spectacularly wrong the rest of the way, he just didn’t convert and dropped his lone shot on the 14th with a drive into thick rough that kept him from reaching the green.
“Eventually I was going to put all the pieces together and today, for the most part, I did that,” Woods said.
It was his lowest round on the PGA Tour since a 65 in the second round of the Wyndham Championship at the end of the 2015 regular season. That was a month before he was sidelined with three more back surgeries. He played only one PGA Tour event since then until returning this year.
But this is Simpson’s show until further notice.