Kuchar, Johnson and Na share lead at The Players Championship
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. - The Players Championship still lacks some definition going into the weekend. At least it still has one of golf's star attractions.
In what looks to be a neighborhood block party, Sea Island residents Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson steered clear of trouble Friday and shared the 36-hole lead with Kevin Na. They had a one-shot lead over Harris English, a PGA Tour rookie who also lives 100 miles to the north at Sea Island.
The attention shifted to Tiger Woods, who with one burst of birdies went from a guy struggling to make the cut to being on the periphery of contention. Woods missed the cut last week at Quail Hollow and has never missed consecutive cuts in his career. He said the thought never crossed his mind.
"I was trying to shoot my number today," Woods said after a 4-under 68, ending a streak of nine straight rounds without shooting in the 60s. "Sixty-six was my number today. I figured that would have been a good way to go into the weekend, being probably four or five back. But I'm still with a good chance."
Johnson made five birdies on the back nine until a bogey on the 18th hole, though he matched the best score of the second round with a 66. Kuchar, who made a strong run at the Masters last month, played bogey-free over his last 13 holes for a 68. Na started the back nine with three straight birdies for a 69.
They were at 8-under 136.
"It's fun to be back in position with a chance to win again," Kuchar said.
English birdied the 17th and 18th for a 67, while the group at 6-under 138 included past champion Adam Scott (70).
Rory McIlroy doesn't even get a chance to play. The U.S. Open champion, who only last week lost in a three-way playoff at Quail Hollow, opened with a birdie and didn't make another one the rest of the day. He shot 76 and missed the cut for the first time in more than a year, though it wasn't unusual at the TPC Sawgrass. In three appearances at The Players Championship, McIlroy has never broken par or made the cut.
"Hopefully, I'm coming back here for another 20 years," McIlroy said. "If I don't figure it out on my 20th, there's something wrong."
The cut was at even-par 144, and Woods was two shots over the cut line when he hit his best shot of the week, a 5-wood into a stiff breeze on the par-3 eighth that caught a slope on the edge of the green and rolled 8 feet from the flag. That was the first of four straight birdies, and when his tee shot to the island-green 17th settled at the very back of the green, he was safe.
Going into the weekend, nothing is settled. Even though Woods was only six shots behind, there were 29 players ahead of him.
One of them is Martin Laird, the only player to reach double digits under par for the week. He was at 10 under with three holes to play when he lost four shots on the last three holes. His hopes for eagle turned into bogey with a 4-iron into the water on the 16th, and he dunked one on No. 17 for double bogey.
Ben Curtis and FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas were in the group at 5-under 139, while the group at 3-under 141 included Quail Hollow playoff winner Rickie Fowler and Luke Donald, who at least has a chance to go back to No. 1 in the world now that McIlroy has missed the cut.
Phil Mickelson, inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday night, again didn't get much out of his round. A winner five years ago at Sawgrass, he had another 71 and still was in the picture going into the weekend at 142, tied with Woods.
McIlroy missing the cut was stunning because he was in such good form all year. Equally surprising was to see Steve Stricker leaving early. Stricker had the longest cut streak on the PGA Tour - 49 events dating to the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine. He played with Mickelson and McIlroy and fell apart with a bogey on the third, and a double bogey from a back bunker on the fourth.
Johnson started with two birdies and felt in control for most of the sunny morning.
"I never really gave the golf course much," he said. "In other words, I kept it where you need to keep it. My misses were proper. I was aggressive when I could be aggressive. And I caught a couple nice saves in there, too. But when you shoot that kind of score around this golf course - any day in the year, or any week - you're putting well. Clearly, that's what I've been doing the best."
Laird went to 10 under with his birdie on the 15th. Then, he hit a beautiful tee shot on the 16th and was in perfect range to think about an eagle.
"It was one of those ones that I had an absolutely perfect number for a 4-iron," Laird said. "It's one of those ones that you almost wish that you don't, and you play a little safer. I hit three or four great iron shots in a row right at the flag and kind of got a little greedy there and tried to fade one in the wind. So that was the first mental mistake I've made all week. If you do that on your 16th hole in the second round, you're doing pretty well."
He went into the water on the 17th, and his third shot was some 50 feet away. He ran the bogey putt to the back edge of the green, and made a 12-footer for double bogey. He then failed to get up-and-down from right of the 18th green.
Even so, he's still in the hunt going into the weekend. And that's all anyone wants on this course, anyway.
"I've just got to take out of it that I played the last three in 4-over par, and I'm still third," Laird said. "So I'm obviously playing some pretty good golf leading up to that. You don't lose that in the space of three holes. I'll be fine tomorrow."
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