PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The final 18 holes at THE PLAYERS Championship can seem like an eternity. The finish line feels so far away. That’s because the final result often hangs in the balance until the very end. Rarely do we see a player jubilantly walking down the final fairway, doffing his cap to the crowd. He still has stressful shots to hit to complete his victory. The closing holes on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass were designed to induce drama, and they usually fulfill their purpose. It looks like Sunday could be another PLAYERS Championship that won’t be decided until the final putt drops, thanks to difficult conditions and a crowded leaderboard. Kyle Stanley and J.B. Holmes share the lead at 9-under 207, taking disparate paths to the top of the leaderboard. Holmes has been one of the least accurate drivers this week but leads the field in Strokes Gained: Putting. Stanley has taken a more traditional road to the lead, ranking in the top 15 of both driving accuracy and greens in regulation. Holmes’ wild play – he also ranks 65th in greens hit — has bucked the conventional wisdom at the Stadium Course. Pete Dye’s design emphasizes accuracy over brute strength, especially when conditions are firm and the greens are hard to hold. Ball-striking is important because the penalty is so high for wayward shots on Dye’s penal design. “This golf course just beats you up,” said Emiliano Grillo, who’s three shots back. “You just have to play well.” There were 74 scores of double-bogey or worse recorded Saturday, and 238 this week. There have been 286 shots hit into the water, including 142 on the famed trio of finishing holes. “Around this golf course, with 16, 17 and 18, anything can happen,” said Louis Oosthuizen, who’s one shot back. “No lead can be big enough. You can be three back and you can win the event. That’s what makes this golf course great. We’ve seen over the years great finishes around this golf course and horrible finishes.” The volatility of the finishing holes, especially when the anxiety is highest on a Sunday afternoon, is one reason comebacks have been prevalent at TPC Sawgrass Seven of the past 10 PLAYERS have been come-from-behind victories, including four wins by players who trailed by three or more strokes entering the final round. There are six players who will start Sunday within three strokes of the lead. It was just two years ago that Rickie Fowler was 4 under on those three holes before winning in a playoff. And, of course, we’ve seen the heartbreak that players such as Sean O’Hair and Len Mattiace have suffered on the island green. “I like the course, but some shots are a bit too scary for me,” said Francesco Molinari, who’s five shots back. “Even if you are suffering out there, you know that everyone is doing the same.” That’s especially true this year. The field averaged 74.04 strokes Saturday. There were seven scores in the 60s on Saturday, as well as seven scores of 79 or higher. This week’s cumulative scoring average is 73.4, on pace to be the highest since 2008. The winner that year? Sergio Garcia. He’s in contention again this week after shooting a 67 on Saturday that moved him within four shots of the lead. He’s looking to become the only player other than Tiger Woods to win the Masters and THE PLAYERS in the same year. Woods won the 2001 PLAYERS a month before completing the Tiger Slam at Augusta National. Garcia is the most successful player among those in the top nine of the leaderboard. He and Oosthuizen are the only major champions among the bunch, and Garcia’s 10 PGA TOUR titles lead the group. Patrick Cantlay and Alex Noren are seeking their first PGA TOUR victories, while four of the top nine have just one TOUR title (Stanley, Oosthuizen, Grillo, Si Woo Kim). The task will be even tougher because high winds are expected to hit the Stadium Course again on Sunday. The final 20 players to tee off Saturday averaged 74.8 strokes, including eight scores of 75 or higher. Of the seven scores in the 60s shot on Saturday, only one came from a player who teed off after noon. Kim, who teed off at 1:30 p.m., shot 68. “Around this golf course without wind, it’s a pretty fine line,” said Fowler, who sits at even par. “You start adding wind to the equation (and) it makes this place, to the average golfer, almost impossible.” These aren’t your average golfers, but they’ll face a tough task Sunday if they want to walk away with THE PLAYERS Championship.
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