(Reuters) - Nobody from Northern Ireland or England has won the Players Championship, but there is a fair chance that drought will end this weekend after Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood forged a three-shot halfway lead in Florida on Friday.
Northern Irishman McIlroy needed a storming finish to catch Englishman Fleetwood (67) at 12-under-par 132 but three shots picked up over his final three holes for a seven-under 65 did the job.
Another benign day allowed plenty of low scoring at TPC Sawgrass and Jim Furyk led the way with a 64 to share third with fellow American Brian Harman, Mexican Abraham Ancer and Ian Poulter.
Tiger Woods was nine strokes adrift after a second-round 71 that included only one blemish on his card.
It was a big one, however, a quadruple-bogey at the island-green 17th, where he hit two balls into the water.
McIlroy has been in tremendous form this year, doing everything but win with no finish worse than sixth in his five starts.
Fleetwood appeared likely to have a handy halfway buffer until McIlroy laced a four-iron from 222 yards to 10-feet at the par-five 16th and drained the putt.
“It was just a perfect yardage to go ahead and be aggressive with,” said McIlroy, who added a 20-foot birdie at the 17th.
He declined to get drawn into what a victory would mean, instead talking of just focusing on the process.
“I just need to keep seeing red numbers,” he said.
“I don’t need a win. I’m not putting myself under pressure. Winning is a byproduct of doing all the things that I’m doing well.
“If you look at my driving stats, how I’m hitting my irons, all that adds up to hopefully shooting the best score or the lowest score of the week.”
A win would be huge for his Ryder Cup team mate, who despite being world number 13 has never tasted victory on the PGA Tour.
“It was a bit more up and down today but absolutely felt really good out there,” said Fleetwood, who was unable to replicate his opening 65 despite snaring an eagle and two birdies on the first three holes.
“Had a great range session warming up, and all you want to do then is make sure you try and take that out onto the course. I had the absolute dream start.
“Really happy with 67. Will take that and run away.”
Not that it is yet a two-horse race, not with a group of thoroughbreds lurking and conditions forecast to become much tougher over the weekend as a cool northerly breeze sweeps through Ponte Vedra Beach.
Third-placed Furyk turned back the clock with his flawless 64, his best-ever score on a course that is not his favorite, even though he lives locally.
“It’s not that I dislike the course. It’s just I have a lot more on tour I’m more comfortable on,” said the 48-year-old.
“We’re all selfish. My track record is not great. As I’ve grown on tour, I’ve got a little more comfortable on this course.
“No bones about it, you’re not going to fudge your way around this course for very long.”
Eighty players made the cut, which fell at one-under.
Big names heading home early included Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Toby Davis/Nick Mulvenney