FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- There was a point during the FedExCup Playoffs on Saturday, not long after overnight co-leaders Nick Watney and Sergio Garcia had teed off in The Barclays, that the Bethpage State Park Black Course began to live up to its fearsome reputation for toughness.
A serene morning that had yielded a bogey-free round of 6-under 65 to Kevin Stadler dissolved into a hot, bright afternoon. The temperatures rose and a breeze started to blow, peeling away the forecasted cloud cover. The sky was high and the air was dry. The putting surfaces, already quick, soon became faster than a New York second.
And when it was over, after Garcia and Watney had finished negotiating the slippery slopes in an entertaining head-to-head that will be reprised on Sunday, Garcia had snatched away the lead with a 2-under 69 to Watney's 71 and pronounced himself "a bit more fortunate" than Watney to have done so.
"This will tell you how fast it was," Garcia said, talking about the greens. "Usually when you are putting on fast greens, you have an idea where the ball is going to stop. And today you didn't. You thought the ball was going to stop two feet behind the hole, and it went six. So, you know, it was as simple as that."
There is nothing simple about setting up a golf course to test the best players in the world. Getting the greens up to speeds in the 12- to-14-foot range on the Stimpmeter requires that they be cut close to the razor edge. This is always dicey, even moreso at a heavily-played public golf course.
In addition, during the run-up to both the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens played here, there were heavy rains before and during the championships. It has been considerably drier this summer, and though the course was closed for two weeks before The Barclays, the course is far and away the best golf course open to the public in the New York metropolitan area, and many thousands of rounds already had been played on the Black.
Although the morning players found the greens to be just fine -- if a bit faster on the golf course than on the practice putting green -- everyone could see what was coming as the breezes began blowing near the noon hour. Rory McIlroy, who managed a 69 on a course that he thought was slightly easier than Friday, predicted as much.
"It's going to get more tricky as the day goes on and the greens are going to dry out," he said. "I could see the leaderboard being very, very bunched going into tomorrow."
It would be even more bunched than it is had Garcia not managed his game as well as he did, getting two strokes of separation between himself and the rest of the field by making some clutch putts. One of the most crucial was a 6-footer for par at No. 9 to dodge a three-putt that would have put him three strokes behind Watney -- who played the front-nine in 3 under.
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In fact, after three-putting from 35 feet at the par-3 third, running his first one 6-and-a-half-feet past, Garcia did not have another three-putt in his round. He admitted to being fooled by the putt at No. 3, something that may have helped him better gauge the weight of the putts later in the round.
"Don't get me wrong, I was standing over it thinking I need to be careful, it's downhill, it should be quick," he said. "When I hit it, I thought, 'eh, hit it a little too hard.' But I thought it was going to go no farther than Nick's putt, which was three feet. I don't know, I think I had like a seven- or eight-footer."
Garcia bogeyed the 10th to fall three back, but then a flurry of mistakes by Watney -- missing the greens at Nos. 10 and 11 to go bogey-bogey -- and a bounceback birdie by Garcia at the 11th evened things at 9 under. Garcia made a testy 4-foot putt for birdie at the par-5 13th, threading it between two prominent spike marks, to take the lead he did not relinquish.
Someone may yet intrude on the Garcia-Watney tete-a-tete on Sunday. Stadler was rolling his putts as well as anyone, and Brandt Snedeker required just 23 putts in his round of 68 to tie for fourth with the surprising Bob Estes.
It might be a bridge too far, but there is formidable firepower arrayed in the eight players tied for 10th at 4 under, six behind Garcia, including Tiger Woods (72), Phil Mickelson (67), Louis Oosthuizen (68), Lee Westwood (68) and Charl Schwartzel (69).
It will take some doing to break up the twosome that slapped palms after each made a putt on the ninth green. Both players are brimming with confidence, Garcia riding the high from the victory at the Wyndham Championship and Watney putting better than he has all year after working with Darrell Kestner, the pro at nearby Deepdale Golf Club, on Monday and Friday.
Garcia, relaxed and smiling after his round, declined to let the whole question of the green speed and course conditions bother him in the least. The worst he would say was that it was "borderline."
As to what he expects on Sunday, he smiled and said, ""I imagine something similiar, if it doesn't rain, so uh, to make sure the belt is nice and tight, and just hold our breath."
It should be quite a ride.