(Reuters) - Jason Day survived greens that were almost unplayable at times, overcoming two early double-bogeys to maintain a four-stroke lead after the third round at the $10.5 million Players Championship in Florida on Saturday.
The world number one was not the only player to have nightmares on greens that suddenly turned glassy and lightning-fast and caused scores to soar in low humidity at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course in Ponte Vedra.
Day, who four-putted the sixth hole from inside 20 feet, joined a chorus of players who described the greens as borderline unputtable.
"This was the toughest day I've ever had to play in my life," Day told reporters after eking out a one-over 73.
"The greens got a little bit out of hand on the front side. Some of the pin locations were a little iffy with how quick the greens were.
"I was very shocked ... That's all you could do, just try to survive. Talk about slow play. They make the course nearly unplayable."
The Australian finished the day with a 14-under total of 202, having earlier returned to complete the weather-delayed second round.
His second round 66 gave him a tournament record-low of 129 at the halfway mark.
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan started the third round with three straight birdies on his way to a 67 and a share of second place with German Alex Cejka (72) and American Ken Duke (65) at 10-under.
Duke and Matsuyama were the only players to break 69 on a day when 76 of the world's best players combined for 149 three-putts, almost two per player. Nobody had a bogey-free round as the field shot an average score of 75.6 strokes.
After yielding plentiful birdies in the first two rounds, the staggeringly different state of the greens caught nearly everyone off guard, including officials.
"I’ve never got over putts where I’ve had to lag a 10-foot putt and try and get it somewhere near the hole," said Day, who looked mentally drained after avoiding any further minefields following his second double-bogey at the par-three eighth.
"That’s the first time in my career I’ve ever played that way. It’s not a lot of fun to sit there about 10 feet and try to two-putt."
Added Matsuyama: "I didn't think the greens were going to be this quick today. They just firmed and just really got hard. I'm just glad I got in the house with a 67."
American Matt Kuchar, who carded 72, said: "The greens are just frightening. There’s zero friction on the greens."
PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell said the state of the greens was not planned.
"What happened today was just kind of a perfect storm with the weather," he said.
"We weren't expecting a (moderate) wind all day, and the humidity 30 percent, not a cloud in the sky. They just sped up on us."
When everyone had had their say, the leaderboard showed the tournament was Day's to lose.
Four men have enjoyed a lead of four shots or better heading into the final round at the Players Championship but only one, Greg Norman in 1994, won.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; editing by Ken Ferris and Ian Ransom