PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Sergio Garcia had one of those stretches where it felt like every putt was going to drop. He needed every one of them Friday for a 7-under 65 to match his best score on the TPC Sawgrass and take a one-shot lead over Tiger Woods at The Players Championship.
Next up is Woods and Garcia in the final group on the weekend, which is sure to add even attention to the stage that is Sawgrass.
Garcia didn’t miss a fairway and putted for birdie on every hole on the back nine and wasn’t gaining any ground. That changed on the front nine when he made seven straight putts – five of them from about 15 feet or longer – to race by Woods and into the lead.
“When you start going like that, obviously it feels great,” said Garcia, who was at 11-under 133. “Everything seems kind of clearer in your head. You seem to see the break. You seem to feel like everything is a little bit easier, a little bit smoother, and you hit the putt and it manages to go in.
“If it was easy, we would have plenty of those, but it’s not,” he said. “Enjoy them while you have them.”
Woods looks like he’s having a good time on the course that has vexed him more than any other on the PGA Tour, and he could be the greater threat on the weekend. Already a three-time winner this year on tour, Woods has rarely put himself in trouble and had his second straight 67.
Woods was at 134, his best 36-hole total by six shots at this tournament, including the year he won.
Woods and Garcia have played together on big stages – Bethpage Black, Royal Liverpool – with a big edge for Woods.
They first were linked when the Spaniard was 19 and gave Woods all he could handle at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship. They were paired in the final round of the 2002 U.S. Open and 2006 British Open, both won by Woods.
Asked about the possibility of playing with Woods on Saturday, Garcia said he wouldn’t see it as anything but another round of golf.
“I don’t have to measure myself against anybody,” Garcia said. “I know what I want to try to do, and any given day I can shoot a round like this and any other day he can shoot a good round and beat me. Like we always say, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So there are going to be good days and not so good days, so just got to enjoy the good ones as much as possible.”
Woods again handled the par 5s and now has played them in 8-under for the week, including his eagle. What impressed him more was his overall game. He was asked if there was any part of his game that made him unhappy.
“No, I’m pretty pleased with where it’s at right now,” Woods replied.
The reporter looked at him, waiting for more. Woods looked back and finally added with a grin, “Did I answer that?”
With the tournament only halfway over, this is far more than a duel between Woods and Garcia.
The 18 players within five shots of the lead include three current major champions — Adam Scott, Webb Simpson and Rory McIlroy — along with Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson.
Westwood chipped in from 100 feet for eagle on the 11th hole and was atop the leaderboard until making pars on his last eight holes. He had a 66 and was two shots behind, along with Kevin Chappell (66) and Stenson, who had two eagles on the front nine in his round of 67.
Ryan Palmer, who learned Thursday night that one of his best friends died in a car accident in San Antonio, had two eagles in a round of 69 and was three shots behind. Defending champion Matt Kuchar birdied three of his last four holes for a 66 and was at 7-under 137, along with Scott, Mahan and Johnson.
McIlroy was coming off back-to-back bogeys when he chose to go for the green in two at the par-5 ninth — he had planned to lay up each day. He hit the trees and got into a mess, and McIlroy made his third straight bogey. He rallied on the back for a 72 and was in the group at 6-under 138.
“I’ve made the cut, which I’m delighted about,” said McIlroy, who had missed the weekend his three previous times. “But I am in there with a chance.”
Woods won The Players in 2001, highlighted by that 60-foot putt on the island green described by NBC Sports analyst Gary Koch as “better than most.” But he has only seriously contended twice, and he has failed to crack the top 20 eight times in 15 appearances.
Woods is accentuating only the positive.
“Even though I haven’t played well in the past, I’ve still won here,” he said. “Actually, I’ve won here twice, technically.”
He was referring to the U.S. Amateur in 1994, the first of his three straight titles.
“I haven’t played my best here, but I’ve always felt that courses, even though it’s been a while I’ve won on them, I’ve still won on them,” Woods said. “I know how to get around this golf course. This course, more than most, really tests every facet of your game. You have to drive the ball well. You have to hit your irons in the correct spots, and if you don’t hit your irons in the correct spots, you’re going to have some really funky up-and-downs.
“It’s trying to manage the ball in the correct spots, and I’ve done that the first two days.”
Woods twice made bogey, both times missing the fairway to the right on No. 14 and No. 7. He finished with a 20-foot birdie putt.
Garcia, for two hours, looked like he couldn’t miss.
His streak began with a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-5 second. He stuffed his tee shot into 6 feet on the third, and hit wedge to 8 feet on the fourth. He followed that with his two long birdie putts, made a putt just inside 15 feet for par on the seventh and ended his big run with the 40-footer on No. 8.
Garcia also is a past champion, winning a playoff in 2008.
“Fortunately for me, I’ve managed to play quite decent on this golf course,” Garcia said. “So any good thing that you can get in your head, it’s obviously positive and those kind of things always help. But it’s a different year. We’ll see if we can manage to do something similar.”