Former teammates face off for PLAYERS title
Univeristy of Georgia alumni Chris Kirk, Kevin Kisner claim final pairing Sunday at TPC Sawgrass
May 09, 2015
By Sean Martin, Mike McAllister, Helen Ross , PGATOUR.COM
- May 09, 2015
- Chris Kirk has 14 birdies and only four bogeys though three rounds at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Chris Kirk and Kevin Kisner will see a familiar face when they step to the first tee at TPC Sawgrass on Sunday afternoon.
The two Georgia alums are paired together in the THE PLAYERS Championship’s final group. Both will be seeking the biggest title of their TOUR career (in Kisner’s case, he’s seeking his first). Kirk is a three-time winner who finished second in last year’s FedExCup. His most recent win came in last season’s FedExCup Playoffs at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Their final-round pairing was made possible when Kevin Na made double-bogey on Saturday’s final hole. Kirk is THE PLAYERS’ 54-hole leader after posting a 10-under 206 (70-68-68) total. Kisner, Ben Martin and Bill Haas are all one shot back.
Kirk has held at least a share of the 54-hole lead on the PGA TOUR three times. He has won twice when holding the lead with one round remaining, at the 2011 Sanderson Farms Championship and 2013 McGladrey Classic.
Kisner and Kirk were teammates on the Georgia team that won the 2005 NCAA Championship. That team had to qualify for each tournament, so they’re accustomed to going head-to-head even though they were on the same side.
“We’ve probably played 200 or 300 rounds of golf together, between qualifying and college tournaments,” Kisner said. “We’ll have a lot of fun. Hopefully it will just be like an old qualifying round. We’ll go out and see who can make the most birdies and add it up at the end.”
Kirk made three birdies and no bogeys on his first nine holes Saturday, but made bogeys at Nos. 13 and 14 after missing a 6-foot birdie putt at the 12th hole. He responded with birdies at Nos. 15-17.
“I had a chance to sort of lose it a little bit today,” Kirk said. “I didn’t let it bother me, and thankfully I was able to birdie the next three to pull out a great round.”
Kirk is in the most stressful position on arguably the TOUR’s most stressful course. The hazard-lined closing holes ensure no lead is safe. There are 25 players at 6 under or lower.
“It’s not like you can ever get comfortable. … If you have a six-shot lead at the turn, you’re not going to be comfortable playing that back nine just because of the way the back nine is,” Kirk said. “You just put your head down and go get it.”
Kevin Na's surprise at 17 and Horschel gets the crowd chomping
THOMAS' RECORD-SETTING PERFORMANCE: Justin Thomas struggled on Saturdays early in his rookie season on the PGA TOUR. He worked his way into contention at the halfway point in multiple tournaments, but started pressing when players passed him before starting his third round.
“I felt like I had to make a lot of birdies. That, for some reason, was really tough for me,” said Thomas, who played in the final group on the weekend of three consecutive events earlier this season.
He turned the tables Saturday at TPC Sawgrass, making a tournament-record 10 birdies in his 7-under 65 to catch the leaders at 8 under. He ended the day two shots off the lead.
“That was cool. I had no idea,” Thomas said of the birdie record. “I didn’t really realize I had made 10 birdies until I got done.”
Thomas teed off in Saturday’s 12th group after making the cut with just one stroke to spare. He was tied for the lead as he signed his scorecard. The day’s final groups were just starting their rounds.
Jhonattan Vegas tied THE PLAYERS record for most birdies in a single round when he made nine in his 66 earlier in the day. Thomas broke the record by playing TPC Sawgrass’ closing hole to perfection. He striped a fairway wood down the middle of the fairway, then hit his 193-yard approach shot to 4 feet.
Thomas had only five pars Saturday, including just one on the front nine, when he made six birdies and two bogeys.
He was two shots outside the cut line with nine holes remaining in the second round, but shot a bogey-free 33 to make the cut with a shot to spare.
“There was a lot of grinding,” said Thomas, who is 43rd in the FedExCup, thanks to eight top-25s, including four top-10s, in 17 starts this season.
This is Thomas’ first PLAYERS, but he previously played the AJGA’s Junior PLAYERS at this course. He made a 10 in that event, and had to answer questions about it earlier this week. He was good-natured about that high number.
On Saturday, “10” had a different meaning. It signified the record he had just set.
TALE OF TWO 27s: Through his first 27 holes this week, Jhonattan Vegas was 5 over and staring at a missed cut.
In his last 27 holes, he’s 11 under and in contention for a big finish on Sunday.
“It was crazy,” Vegas said. “… It’s the game, and things turn around, and I’m super happy.”
When Vegas walked off the course Saturday after his 66 put him at 6 under, he was tied for third on the leaderboard. At the end of the day, he was tied for 17th place, four shots back.That’s because the leaders had yet to even tee off.
He knows he’ll be a few strokes behind when he starts Sunday’s round, but given the way he’s played in his last 27 holes, he has every right to be confident.
“About three years ago, I finished seventh here, was kind of in a similar situation that I’m going to be on Sunday, so it’s a good feeling,” Vegas said. “… Should be a fun Sunday.”
Vegas knew the winning score the last few years has been -13. He wanted to shoot about -6 today. Mission accomplished pic.twitter.com/PfWXEF69RU— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 9, 2015
FRONT NINE CONFOUNDS MCILROY: Much like at Augusta National, the front nine at TPC Sawgrass has proven perplexing to Rory McIlroy.
And much like the Masters, he has never won THE PLAYERS Championship.
He’ll have a chance Sunday after a 2-under 70 that leaves him four strokes off the lead through three rounds. But this week has again been about the ones that have gotten away from McIlroy on the front side of the golf course.
“I think a lot of holes on the front nine are very straight away, where there's a lot of doglegs on the back nine and it sort of, you can visualize shots better,” McIlroy said. “I feel. I feel on the front nine, like even holes like 2 it's, obviously you need to hit a draw there, but even 4 and 5 and 6 and 7, they're all like pretty straight holes and I sort of get up there and I've got about six shots in my head that I can hit. I just need to try and pick one of them and commit to them and sometimes, of the six shots, I don't hit any of them.”
WOODS FADES IN ROUND 3: Tiger Woods’ third-round 75 included two double-bogeys on par-5s. Woods, who one day earlier made a 9-foot putt to make the cut on the number, is at 3-over 219 after 54 holes.
Woods started the final round eight shots back of co-leaders Kevin Na and Jerry Kelly. Several players made moves up the leaderboard early Saturday, but Woods was not one of them.
After a par at No. 1, Woods doubled the par-5 second hole when his tee shot ricocheted off a tree and landed 105 yards from the tee. He needed five shots to reach the green.
He made one birdie and one bogey over the next six holes, but had another 7 at No. 9. He was just short of the green in two shots, but fluffed two flop shots. Woods made the turn in 40, and had eight pars and one birdie on the back nine.
Woods walked gingerly out of the scoring area and did not stop to talk to reporters.
STUCK IN NEUTRAL: Kevin Na and Jerry Kelly weren’t able to break par on a day when red numbers were commonplace, but the players in Saturday’s final pairing stayed within sight of the lead.
Na and Kelly, who shared the 36-hole lead at 8-under par, both shot 72 on Saturday and are two shots behind Chris Kirk.
Na was tied for the lead before making double bogey on No. 18. He didn’t hit it into the water, but made double-bogey after missing the fairway and green and three-putting from approximately 60 feet. Na also missed a 6-foot birdie putt on No. 17. He dropped his club immediately after making impact, thinking his shot was headed for trouble. It ended up near the hole instead.
“I got to think of the positive,” Na said. “I played well today. I hung in there. The good news is I’m only two back.”
Kelly’s second shot at the par-5 16th hole found the water. It led to his only bogey on the back nine. Kelly described his play as “loose, very loose.”
“The 1-over on the par-5s, that pretty much says it all,” Kelly said. At 48 years old, he is trying to become the second-oldest winner in PLAYERS history. Fred Funk also was 48 when he won this tournament in 2005.
HORSCHEL DISPLAYS GATOR PRIDE: Billy Horschel never contemplated a different outfit for Saturday at TPC Sawgrass -- orange and blue shirt, blue belt, orange pants -- even if the former University of Florida standout knew he’d get grief over it from the Florida State fans in the crowd.
Florida's campus is about 90 minutes away; Florida State's three hours.
“I heard more ‘Go Noles’ this week than I have the last three years,” Horschel said. “I'm guessing it's because they won a national championship and they come out from the woodwork and they think they're all high and mighty.”
Not everyone was rooting against him. One fan said, “From a (Georgia) Bulldog to a Gator, go Gator.”
GARCIA IN CONTENTION: Sergio Garcia can sometimes seem like a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and Saturday was no exception.
As happy as he was to be contending for his second PLAYERS Championship title, starting the final round two strokes off the lead, Garcia couldn't help but worry about his putting that has been up and down all year.
"Some great rounds and then some rounds where ... I can't even see the hole," the 35-year-old lamented.
Since arriving at TPC Sawgrass this week, Garcia has already tried two different grips and two different putters. The third one he brought to north Florida is now in a garbage can.
Not that this is the first time the Spaniard has been caught searching on the greens.
HAAS HISTORY AT TPC SAWGRASS: Bill Haas said he felt like he knew how to play the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass before he ever teed it up on Pete Dye's signature creation.
After all, his father, Jay, the Presidents Cup captain, competed in THE PLAYERS Championship 29 times and Bill was either in the gallery or watching on TV. Jay nearly won the PGA TOUR's marquee event in 2003, too, when he took a share of the lead into the final round only to be beaten by his good friend Davis Love III's 64.
On Sunday, the younger Haas gets his first chance to put the family name on the Circle of Champions. Bill starts the final round one stroke behind Chris Kirk's lead at 9 under after Saturday's 68 that included a gritty par from the rough at the 18th hole.
"I know it's only one shot, but for some reason sleeping on a par tastes better than sleeping on a bogey," smiled Bill, who was holding his toddler William on his lap.
The former Wake Forest All-American, who opened with a 72, has only made one bogey over the last 36 holes when he's shot 9 under. The consistency is evident in his stats -- Bill is tied for second in Strokes Gained: Total and ranks sixth in the same tee to green and 27th in the putting one.
"I've just been fortunate to put the ball in play off the tee most of the week, and from there I've somewhat been less stress-free," Bill said.
Jay has been in Ponte Vedra since Friday night, too. He played in a pro-am Saturday morning and was able to join his son for about 30 minutes on the range before the third round.
FIRST-TIMERS ON THE RISE: Earlier this week at THE PLAYERS Championship, the 18 first-timers in the field took a survey. Which newcomer, other than yourself, would you pick to win?
Kevin Kisner selected Ben Martin. Given that both players are tied for second, one stroke off the lead held by Chris Kirk heading into Sunday’s final round at TPC Sawgrass, it was a great call.
“Looking pretty good between the two,” Kisner said.
And so Martin reciprocated by choosing Kisner, right?
“I picked Danny Willett,” Martin said. “Actually, I don’t know Danny really at all, but he played well in San Francisco (at the Cadillac Match Play), so I went with the guy with the hot hand.
“But I appreciate that from Kis.”
Although first-timers generally do not fare well at TPC Sawgrass – just two have won, the last time in 2002 with Craig Perks – perhaps this is the week the fresh faces rise up and claim the TOUR’s signature event. Three of them are spread out among the final three groups Sunday.
CALL OF THE DAYFred Albers of PGA TOUR Radio on PGATOUR.COM calls Billy Horschel's 22-foot birdie on No. 17 at THE PLAYERS Championship
Free play-by-play coverage of the final round streams from 1-6 p.m. ET Sunday on PGATOUR.COM
SHOT OF THE DAY
Shot of the Day
Rickie Fowler’s birdie chip-in is the Shot of the Day
BEST OF SOCIAL MEDIA
So close today. Played really well, couple of lose drive coming in but game is really good. And I've finally found my putting set up again😉— Ian Poulter (@IanJamesPoulter) May 9, 2015
Incredible support this week @THEPLAYERSChamp Great playing In front of friends and family. Hopefully finish strong tomo.— Russell Knox (@rooknox) May 9, 2015
Big congrats to all my friends at UK who graduated today! Quite the accomplishment I can't quite claim at this moment haha #oops— Justin Thomas (@JustinThomas34) May 9, 2015
I wish I could drop my club after shots and have the ball go to 5 feet. #maybenextweek— Ricky Barnes (@RealRickyBarnes) May 9, 2015
Side pocket for Justin Thomas at 8. He's about 40 yards short and left of green. Results in 2nd bogey of day. pic.twitter.com/ZYUMzS4y1g— Sean Martin (@PGATOURSMartin) May 9, 2015
ODDS & ENDS
Justin Thomas set a tournament record for the most birdies in one round at THE PLAYERS with 10 on Saturday. Earlier in the day, Jhonattan Vegas had tied the previous record, becoming the 20th player to record nine birdies in a round. ...
The largest final-round comeback in a PLAYERS at TPC Sawgrass is five shots, set by Justin Leonard in 1998 and Henrik Stenson in 2009. ...
Americans have won THE PLAYERS just three times in the last 10 years: Tiger Woods (2013), Matt Kuchar (2012) and Fred Funk (2005). ...
After 44 consecutive rounds at TPC Sawgrass without hitting a tee shot in the water hazard on No. 17, Robert Allenby hit two in the water during Saturday's third round, including one from the drop zone. The last time Allenby hit his tee shot in the water on No. 17 was Round 2 in 2001. ...
Three players in the top 10 through 54 holes are making their first career PLAYERS Championship start this week: Kevin Kisner (T2), Ben Martin (T2) and Justin Thomas (T5). Only three players have won THE PLAYERS in their first attempt: Jack Nicklaus (1974) in the inaugural PLAYERS; Hal Sutton (1983); and Craig Perks (2002). ...
Chesson Hadley (T11) has a win at TPC Sawgrass on his resume, having won the Web.com Tour Championship in 2012 on Dye's Valley.
THEY SAID IT
“He’s made about $50 million out here, so that kind of helps.” – Chesson Hadley, talking about how Ernie Els never seems to get flustered.
“It's never easy.” – John Senden when asked about the “easier” pin placement on No. 17 in the third round.
ROUND 3 STATS
Category Round 3 leader Statistic Weekly leader Statistic Strokes gained: tee-to-green Sergio Garcia 3.82 strokes gained Sergio Garcia 3.93 strokes gained per round Driving distance J.B. Holmes 318.5 yards Dustin Johnson 316.8 yards Driving accuracy R. Allenby, K. Choi, S. Garcia, R. McIlroy
13 of 14 Pat Perez 35 of 42 Strokes gained: putting Jhonattan Vegas 4.97 strokes gained Justin Thomas 2.15 strokes gained per round Putts per round Jhonattan Vegas 22 Derek Fathauer 25