Entering the weekend, it's best to look at the lurkers, not leaders

May 11, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- When the field is cut to the low 70 scores and ties each Friday on the PGA TOUR, the temptation is to spotlight the leaders while focusing the debate on which one can hang on to, or widen, the lead.

But if you're trying on Friday night or early Saturday to identify the player most likely to be overlapping the big Waterford Crystal trophy given to the winner of THE PLAYERS Championship on Sunday, you might want to look further than the top of the leaderboard, where Zach Johnson (66), Kevin Na (69) and Matt Kuchar (68) are tied for the lead at 8-under 136.

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In fact, it may be a good idea to look at someone lurking in the shadows, say, three, four, five, maybe even six strokes back.

Someone like: Jonathan Byrd or Adam Scott or Martin Laird, all two strokes back at 6-under 138; or Ben Curtis, three strokes back at 139; or how about the foursome of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Rickie Fowler, five strokes back at 141?

Shall we go on? Yes. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, in a large group tied for 30th at 2-under 142, six strokes back. We'll stop there, even though the last player to come from well off the place -- Tim Clark in 2010 -- was tied for 23rd after two rounds, seven strokes behind second-round leader Westwood.

No lead is really safe at TPC Sawgrass, where misses of just a couple of feet can be the difference between double bogey and birdie and where, when the wind blows and the rain stays away, leads can evaporate faster than you can say Alex Cejka. He was the third-round leader in 2009 whose 54-hole lead of five strokes, the largest in the history of THE PLAYERS, was gone as he left the 4th green.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but history says the odds are not good that anyone from the present trio of leaders will win THE PLAYERS. No offense to Johnson, Na and Kuchar, but just six of 29 second-round leaders have gone on to win the tournament since it moved to its permanent home at TPC Sawgrass.

Of those six players, three are in the World Golf Hall of Fame -- '93 winner Nick Price, '94 winner Greg Norman, and 2007 winner Phil Mickelson. And though the odds of 36-hole leaders winning a TOUR event have been slightly better in the 19 events so far this year, it's still only a one-in-four chance.

Overhauling this trio of straight-driving, green-hitting specialists will be no mean feat.

Na, the youngest of the three leaders at 28 years old, won his first PGA TOUR event last year. He's tied for fifth twice this season -- at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am -- and tied for fourth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.

He ranks 15th in driving accuracy and has taken just 24 putts in each of his rounds this week. His assessment of the upcoming weekend has everything to do with the here and now and nothing to do with the odds stacked against him.

Dorman essay on the 17th

PGATOUR.COM's Larry Dorman talks about what makes the 17th at TPC Sawgrass so entertaining.

"You know, I've won before, so that win last year did a lot for me confidence-wise, and being a lot more relaxed out there when I'm in contention," he said. "I'm playing very well, rolling it great. I think the key for me is going to be the driver, putting it in the fairway."

If Na can get past the third round, in which his scoring average of 71.1 is 81st on TOUR, he might just be able to hang in there. He has the formula down, and, after hitting just five of 14 fairways on Friday, the confidence to say, "The guy that's going to find the short grass is going to be the winner."

Na was basically describing himself, Johnson, 36, and Kuchar, 34 -- three of the straightest drivers in the game. Kuchar is so straight, his ball even found the fairway after hitting a tree some 200 yards from the tee at No. 16 on Friday. He is 18th on TOUR, hitting 66 percent of the fairways. Johnson, who has seven TOUR victories, is ranked 10th in driving accuracy.

Of the three, Kuchar has the best weekend scoring average -- 69.75 for 22nd on Saturday and 70.25 for 23rd on Sunday.

If he, or either of his co-leaders, can post Kuchar's average weekend scores, they will be right there at the end. But if the odds of weekend's past prevail, they will become another statistic.

Fowler, the 23-year-old who demonstrated last week at Quail Hollow what kind of closing capabilities he has, will be well worth watching this weekend. It might be too much to ask of him to go ahead and win his second within a week of his first, but he didn't sound like he's shrinking from the prospect when asked if he considered himself to be in contention.

"Yeah," he said, "most definitely. I was focusing on the back nine, making sure we were going to give ourselves a chance this weekend. Five back going into tomorrow and put ourselves in position for Sunday."

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.