By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Ben Curtis likes difficult golf courses, and they don’t come much tougher than TPC Sawgrass.
It’s no wonder then Curtis will enter the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship in contention at 7 under after shooting 70 on Saturday. He had just two birdies in the third round but was one of only two players without a bogey on the scorecard on a windswept afternoon.
The other was the player he’s chasing, Kevin Na.
“I love when par is at a premium” said Curtis, who is tied for fourth and five shots back of Na. “I like the feeling when you make par and you know you’re going to move up the leaderboard. For me, I feel less pressure.”
It showed, especially on the back nine where Curtis got up-and-down from 86, 69 and 50 feet to save par on the 13th, 14th and 15th holes.
All week, players have talked about the importance of hitting fairways and greens. Yet Curtis has done neither very well, ranking outside the top 50 for the week in both.
What he has done, however, is make putts. Curtis is tied for the fourth-fewest in the field with 81.
It’s something that’s been a prevailing trend the last four starts for Curtis, who hasn’t finished outside the top 13 since his victory last month in San Antonio.
“The last four events the greens have been really good; I like them firm and fast,” Curtis said. “When they get slow and bumpy, that’s a struggle for me. That’s huge.”
So too have been some of Curtis’ performances on tough tracks -- in his career, he has top-10 finishes at, among others, Quail Hollow, Bay Hill, East Lake and Oakland Hills, where he tied for second in the 2008 PGA Championship.
Like those past results, avoiding trouble is almost if not as important as making birdie. This week, you have to go back to the 11th hole Friday to find the last bogey Curtis made -- a span of 25 straight without a blemish on the card.
As well as Curtis played Saturday, his second round may have been just as if not more important.
At 3 over through his first 11 holes Friday, Curtis was flirting with the cut after back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11. He bounced back with a 10-foot birdie on the par-3 12th, though, and added three more to finish a stroke under par.
“The birdie on 12 seemed to calm me down,” he said. “I was a little tentative to start the round. I was trying to not make bogey and I was.”
For a while, Curtis made plenty of bogeys, especially here. He missed the cut in his first four appearances at THE PLAYERS. He also struggled in the two years immediately following his watershed victory at the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George’s.
“In ‘04 and ‘05 I put so much pressure on myself to do well,” Curtis said. “I [finally] said screw that and just play golf.”
A year later he won twice.
Curtis had to wait six years for his next victory, but it never seemed that far off. Neither does one here, and with good reason.
Curtis only needs to look back to 2009 when Henrik Stenson rallied from five shots back with a 66 on the final day to win by four.
“It could change so fast out here,” Curtis said.
If anyone knows that, he does.