May 13 2012
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- If past history is any indication, Sunday's final round of THE PLAYERS Championship is a five-man race.
That's because the largest come-from-behind victory on the Stadium Course is five strokes, accomplished in 1998 by Justin Leonard and again by Henrik Stenson in 2009. Leonard shot a 67 to overtake Lee Janzen that year while Stenson closed with a 66 to nip Cejka.
Kevin Na, who is currently 11 under, will tee off at 2:45 p.m. with a one-stroke lead over his playing partner, Matt Kuchar. Only three other players are with five strokes of that advantage -- Rickie Fowler at 9 under and Zach Johnson and Ben Curtis, who finished 54 holes at 7 under.
Third-round leaders like Na have been successful roughly 30 percent of the time since the PGA TOUR's signature event moved across the street to Pete Dye's penal Stadium Course 30 years ago. Eleven have gone on to victory with the last being Stephen Ames, who led by one and went on to win by six in 2006 when he closed with a 67.
Fred Couples and Davis Love III get credit for the lowest final rounds by winners, though -- shooting 64s, one off the course record, in 1996 and 2003, respectively. Couples made up four strokes in his victory while Love came back from two and won by six. Such sizzling rounds are hard to come by, though, with the pressure mounting, the course like it will be Sunday and the wind whipping in the 15-25 mph range.
That said, the Stadium Course can be generous at times with both nines yielding record 30s -- six times on the front and 11 times on the back. But only three players have shot 6 under in the final round, surprisingly all on the back nine. John Cook parlayed his record back nine to a tie for third in 1991, Kirk Triplett used his to tie for 19th in 1996 and Padraig Harrington finished second when he closed with a 30 in 2004.
Interestingly, only one player -- Steve Elkington in 1991 -- has birdied the 18th hole to earn his victory. This year the brutal par 4, which features a lake down the entire left-hand side is cumulatively the second-hardest on the course, ranking first on Thursday, fifth on Friday and fourth in the third round.
Na and Kuchar are the only ones who can join Greg Norman, Fuzzy Zoeller, Jeff Maggert and Elkington in posting four rounds in the 60s. To show how rare that is, consider this: Norman, Zoeller and Maggert did it in the same year, finishing 1-2-3, respectively. Elkington's four came when he won THE PLAYERS for the second time in 1997.
Interestingly, Na had only broken 70 once in 16 rounds at the Stadium prior to this week while Kuchar has done it three times in 21 rounds -- and never in the same tournament. If either can do it again on Sunday, they'll have a very good chance at the biggest victory of their careers.