PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — No offense to Henrik Stenson, Tim Clark, K.J. Choi, or even Matt Kuchar, but the last four editions of the Players Championship have lacked the star-driven buzz that golf fans want to see from the PGA Tour’s flagship event.
That shouldn’t be a problem this year. When Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia are paired in Saturday’s final twosome, and they’re being chased by Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, and new Masters champion Adam Scott, chances are decent that the weekend will be packed with unpredictable drama involving some of the game’s most popular personalities.
None more than the two at the top. Garcia shot a 7-under-par 65 on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass Friday, good for a one-shot lead over Woods, who had a 67. Westwood (66), Kevin Chappell (66), and Stenson (67) are all at 9 under, two shots behind Garcia.
Polarizing at times, entertaining most others, Garcia and Woods won’t give the Players a match-play feel, at least not yet. But the expectations for the final pairing will be high. This also will give Garcia another opportunity to emerge from Woods’s considerable shadow, even if he might not view it that way.
“No, I don’t have to measure myself against anybody,” Garcia said. “I know what I want to try to do. Any given day I can shoot a round like this, and any other day he can shoot a good round and beat me.”
Woods has done plenty of that through the years. When they’ve been paired in PGA Tour events, not surprisingly, the advantage has lopsidedly been on Woods’s side. They’ve been in the same group 19 times over a span of 12 tournaments. Woods has shot a lower score in 12 of those 19 rounds; Garcia has had the lower number three times, and on four occasions they’ve signed for the same.
More importantly, Woods has gone on to win eight of those 12 tournaments, including the 2006 British Open, when they were paired three days, including the final round. Garcia is still looking for his first tournament win when paired with Woods.
Tall order, but perhaps Garcia can finally turn that corner at the Players. Although he’s never been paired with Woods at TPC Sawgrass, Garcia’s record here is on par with the world’s top-ranked player (they both have a win and a second), and Garcia is the tournament’s all-time leading money winner. He also, at least for the time being, is the one with the one-shot lead.
“Fortunately for me, I’ve managed to play quite decent on this golf course,” said Garcia, who won the Players in 2008. “But it’s a different year, so obviously the shots I hit [in 2008], they can give me a good thought, but it’s a different tournament.
“So we’ll see if we can manage to do something similar.”
Garcia joined Woods in the lead at 10 under on the strength of five straight birdies, beginning at No. 2 (he started on No. 10). He nudged in front when Woods bogeyed No. 7. Playing in the group directly in front of Woods, Garcia doubled his lead to two by knocking in a 40-footer for birdie at No. 8.
Woods had tied Westwood for the lead with a 20-foot eagle on No. 2, then took it by himself with a short birdie putt at the fourth. He ultimately drew within one of Garcia by making an 18-footer at the par-5 ninth. Through two rounds, Woods has played the par-5 holes in 8 under par.
“A nice way to finish,” he said. “I’ve handled the par 5s really well the first couple days. I feel like I’m driving it well, hitting it well with my irons, my distance control is good, short game is really solid, and I’m making my share of putts.”
That personal assessment might send shivers through the rest of the field, but Woods has only one win in his 15 Players appearances. For someone making his 300th PGA Tour start this week and with 77 victories, a win-start ratio of 1 for 15 might give the rest of the field the slightest ray of optimism.
Among the pursuers, Stenson (2009) and Scott (2004) have also won here, while Westwood and McIlroy have not.
Kuchar (66) is in the mix at 7 under, trying to become the first to win back-to-back Players.
The course is drying out and the wind is beginning to kick up, especially in the afternoon, when the leaders will be starting their rounds this weekend. Low scores, abundant so far, might not be so easy to find.
It’s far from a two-horse race, but all eyes will be on the 2:40 p.m. starting time. Woods and Garcia are the last to go off. All signs point to it being worth the wait.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.