Having played much of his career in the shadow of Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia gets the opportunity to grab the spotlight for himself in the third round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday.
Garcia shot a 7-under-par 65 Friday for a one-shot lead while Woods posted a second straight 67, leaving the two in the final pairing Saturday.
It will be the 20th time the two have been in the same pairing, with Woods holding a healthy 12-3-4 advantage, including 5-1-2 in majors and 4-0 in the final round.
Palm Beach Gardens resident Lee Westwood fired a 66 to share third place with 2009 champion Henrik Stenson and little-known Kevin Chappell. Stenson raised some eyebrows with a 31 on the back nine that featured eagles on both par-5s.
While Woods has reclaimed the mantle of the world’s best player this year, winning three times, Garcia has quietly had a fine season in his own right and has a solid record at the Players that includes a championship in 2008.
“I hit the ball very well, hit a lot of good iron shots and gave myself a lot of good birdie opportunities,” Garcia said. “I wasn’t able to convert many of them on the front nine, but got going on the back.”
A bogey on his 10th hole left Garcia only 1-under for the day, but he then proceeded to birdie five straight holes and six of his last eight.
Woods, who like Garcia started on the back nine, spiced an otherwise unspectacular round with an eagle on No. 2, where he hit what he called a “little 5-wood” to the green from 252 yards and sank the ensuing 20-foot putt.
“I hit the ball better than I did (Thursday) and felt I managed my game well,” Woods said. “I’ve had a couple funky up-and-downs the last couple days, but I’ve missed the ball in the correct spots and I’ve handled the par-5s really well.”
Woods has an eagle, six pars and a birdie on the four par-5s so far. Garcia has five birdies and three pars.
Garcia’s history in pairings with Woods dates back to the second round of the 1999 Masters, when Woods shot a 72 and Garcia a 75 and both wound up well down the leaderboard. Their most memorable battles since:
Medinah, 1999 PGA Championship: Woods, 23 at the time, was just coming into his own as a dominant pro while Garcia, then 19, seemed prepared to challenge his dominance. Garcia’s fist-pumping after birdies was perceived as an open challenge to Woods. And Woods answered, edging Garcia by one shot for his first PGA title and second major championship.
Bethpage Black, 2002 U.S. Open: New York-area fans made no secret of whom they favored, heckling and razzing Garcia at every turn while cheering Woods’ every move. Garcia, who had responded to the crowd with an obscene gesture during the second round, trailed by four shots when the round began and wound up six back after shooting a 74 to Woods’ closing 72.
Royal Liverpool, 2006 British Open: Once again paired with Woods in the final round of a major, Garcia made a statement when he showed up wearing all yellow. After shooting a 5-under 67 to Garcia’s 73 to win his second Claret Jug, Woods made a statement of his own, memorably texting a friend, “I just bludgeoned Tweety Bird.”
Garcia, who is ranked 15th, has played well this year, finishing in the top 20 in six-of-seven events including a third at Doral, seventh at Tampa Bay and eighth at the Masters.
Asked after his round about the possibility of being paired with Woods in the third round, he replied, “I don’t have to measure myself against anybody. 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.”
For his part, Woods has found very little not to enjoy about his week. This is the first time since 2004 he’s put together back-to-back rounds in the 60s in this event, and his 141 total is seven shots better than where he was when he won in 2001.
“I’m pleased with every facet,” he said. “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. I’m right there.”