- Simpson holds a seven-shot lead, while Danny Lee is leading the bunched-up pack chasing him at 12-under, with Dustin Johnson in third at 10-under and five players locked at nine under.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — One rarely expects a player on today’s hyper-competitive PGA Tour to run away with a golf tournament, but there are a few names that wouldn’t be totally shocking to see crushing the rest. Rory McIlroy comes to mind. So do Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.
Webb Simpson? Not so much.
But that’s exactly what Simpson is doing at the Players Championship, as he fired a four-under 68 on Saturday to reach 19 under and push his lead to seven heading into Sunday’s final round.
Danny Lee is leading the bunched-up pack chasing Simpson at 12-under, while Johnson is solo third at 10-under and five players are locked at nine under.
“I felt like we had a great game plan and stuck to it,” Simpson said. “I think it was a good, solid day, but I’d like to clean up those mistakes and come out tomorrow with an even sharper round.”
The sharpest round of the day came from…Tiger Woods, who is now in a tie for 9th at eight under after shooting seven-under 65. It is the lowest of the 66 rounds he’s played at the Players Championship, his lowest round since returning from spinal fusion surgery and his best round in relation to par since 2013.
Woods sent a buzz throughout TPC Sawgrass by birdieing six of his first nine holes for a front-nine 30, and then added two more birdies at 11 and 12. He would play the rest of the round in one over, however, leaving a less-than-ideal taste after a round that looked like it would challenge the course record of 63.
“Sixty-five was probably as high as I could have shot today,” Woods said after the round. “Which was kind of nice.”
Woods will play with Jordan Spieth on Sunday after the 24-year-old matched Woods’s round with a 65 of his own. Spieth, a historically terrific putter, has actually struggled on the greens this year. He entered this week ranked 187th in strokes gained putting, but it was an entirely different story on Saturday. The three-time major winner did not miss an effort inside 15 feet and picked up 2.98 strokes putting on the field.
“I actually drove the ball unbelievably well the first two days,” Spieth said of his 75-68 start, “and I hit my driver really poorly today and shot seven under. So just shows you where it actually matters, and that’s on the greens.”
The Woods-Spieth pairing, featuring two players who won the Masters as 21-year-olds, will be the second marquee pairing of the week for Woods. He played the first two rounds alongside Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, both of whom missed the cut.
While Woods and Spieth are sure to draw a lion’s share of the crowd’s adoration on Sunday, neither player will have a realistic chance of chasing down Simpson. The 32-year-old North Carolinian has brought the course to its knees with a combination of precise ball striking and a hot putter, a belly-length flatstick he holds with a unique claw grip.
After he shot 63 on Friday to tie the TPC Sawgrass record, Simpson began Saturday’s round with a five-shot lead. Any uncertainty as to whether he’d play conservatively with that advantage was erased early, as Simpson made a textbook birdie on the 1st and never looked back. He added two more birdies on the front (on 4 and 9), which sandwiched a bogey on 8, and by that point his lead was already up to seven.
Simpson’s highlight of the day came on 11, when he holed out from a bunker for an eagle 3. But he cooled off a bit on the back nine, three-putting for bogey on 14 and failing to get up-and-down for birdie on 16. He approached the island green 17th without much momentum, and that tee box is also where his hopes of breaking the course record evaporated on Friday. Sitting at 11 under for the day and needing only to play the last two holes in one over to break the record, Simpson rinsed his tee shot en route to a double bogey.
If there were any demons from that shot lingering in this Demon Deacon’s head—pardon the pun, but Simpson is a 2008 graduate of Wake Forest—he didn’t let them affect him, as he spun back a wedge to three feet and made birdie. The 2011 U.S. Open champion fist-pumped as he drained a 17-footer for par at the last, proof that finishing a round on a high note is of paramount importance no matter the scoreboard.
Simpson’s 19-under total of 197 equals the 54-hole tournament scoring record.
He’ll need a 67 on Sunday to tie Greg Norman’s tournament scoring record of 24 under, which the Aussie set in 1994.
Simpson now has a great chance to pick up a massive win on Mother’s Day less than a year after his father passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
“Quite a bit,” Simpson said when asked how much he wants to win for his mother. “You know, being Mother’s Day and seeing what she’s gone through. I was with her last week in Charlotte, so this would be an amazing Mother’s Day present for her.
“But, 18 holes. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”