Within the vortex of Move Day at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, surrounded by competitors rising and falling on the leaderboard on Saturday, Lee Westwood stayed his own personal course and ended the third round of The Players Championship exactly where he started: the sole leader.
He even improved his position by one shot. Westwood is likely to need that cushion, and a few more to hold off a host of contenders — chief among them Bryson DeChambeau, his final-round playing partner last Sunday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando.
The 47-year-old Westwood, who has won international tournaments in four decades, gave DeChambeau all he could handle before losing by one shot.
They’re together again this Sunday.
“It’s round two … the rematch,” Westwood said.
On another gorgeous Northeast Florida day, Westwood made a gutty 5-foot par save at the last to salvage a 68 for a 54-hole total of 13-under-par 203, two shots ahead of DeChambeau (67) and three clear of Justin Thomas (64) and Doug Ghim (68).
Paul Casey (67), Jon Rahm (67) and Brian Harman (69) were tied at 9-under and 2008 Players champion Sergio Garcia (71), Chris Kirk (71) and Matthew Fitzpatrick (72) are at 8-under.
Cameron Smith of Jacksonville (65) and 2017 Players champion Si Woo Kim (67) are 7-under.
When the final round begins, a dozen players will be within four shots of Westwood, who slept on the Sunday lead in the 2010 players, only to be passed by Tim Clark.
Westwood began the day with nine pars in a row. But he birdied Nos. 10, 12 and 16, then made a startling 25-foot putt for birdie at No. 17.
“I was playing well all day, trying to be patient and wait for the good things to happen,” said Westwood, who has 23 top-10 finishes in major championships and The Players, and has found way to come up short every time – or had someone like Clark snatch it from him.
And he’s ready for another Sunday duel with DeChambeau, who reserved his spot in the final twosome by making a 14-foot par putt at No. 18, followed by an emotional series of fist pumps.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Westwood said of another chance to play with DeChambeau in a final round. “I enjoy playing with him and I enjoy his company. I enjoyed last Sunday and I’m going to enjoy this Sunday.”
DeChambeau, who continued plotting his way around the course instead of trying to out-muscle it, had only one bogey, at No. 14.
He said he likely will have to seize the day on Sunday, because Westwood, who shot his second bogey-free round in a row at the Stadium Course and has gone 44 holes in a row without a blemish on the card, doesn’t seem as if he’s going to beat himself.
Westwood hit 15 greens on Saturday and scrambled for with little sweat on the three he missed.
“Yeah … Mr. Consistency,” said DeChambeau, who followed his usual pattern by making birdie on three of the four par-5 holes, plus the short par-4 12th. “I mean, his driving is impeccable, his iron play is impeccable and he makes putts when he needs to. Fortunately for me last week I was able to get the job done, and I think tomorrow is going to be an incredible battle.”
But the last twosome can’t assume that the low man will be the tournament winner.
Thomas birdied his first four holes and had a chance at the last to tie the course record. The little-known Ghim, who has recorded only one top-10 finish on the PGA Tour, ran a bogey-free streak of holes to 33 and looked nothing like a first-time Players participant.
And international stars such as Rahm, Casey and Garcia will be ready to pounce.
But Westwood is hungry for his signature victory after so many close calls.
“The biggest, undoubtedly,” he said, when asked how he would measure winning The Players against his 42 international titles. “It will be the biggest tournament I’ve ever won.”
Given the pressure, the field and the course, the presence of players such as Thomas, Garcia, Rahm and Casey on the leaderboard is expected.
But the exception is Ghim, a University of Texas teammate with Jordan Spieth. He has taken a more winding path to the PGA Tour through international circuits and the Korn Ferry Tour, and is ranked 257th in the world.
Ghim held the lead briefly but actually seemed relieved to be working from behind on Sunday.
“Especially coming from an inexperienced position, not having the lead going into tomorrow might even be a good thing,” he said. “This golf course is so difficult and to think about having the lead so early in the tournament … I’ve just got to do the best I can to execute the way I’ve been doing and we’ll see. I’ll learn from it no matter what.”
Thomas made the biggest move of the day with his career-best score in The Players. He had a birdie putt attempt at No. 18 to tie eight other players for the course record of 63 but was content with his result and his position.
“The greens are still pretty soft, but you know they’re going to set it up tougher on Sunday,” he said. “You know where the pins are going to be, and the greens are going to get a little bit more baked out. It’s going to be a little windier, and it’s a Sunday of a Players. It’s a huge event and nerves are going to be there.”