Webb Simpson started the third round at The Players Championship with a five-stroke lead over the best field in professional golf and played fearlessly to expand that advantage to seven strokes while all but lulling to sleep the competition after 54 holes.
Every other golfer will be playing for second on Sunday after Simpson fired a 4-under 68 on Saturday to finish at 19-under-par 197 after three rounds on the Players Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Danny Lee of Australia is in second at 12-under 204 after a 70 on Saturday, and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson fired a 69 to finish alone in third at 206. Jason Dufner (66), Jimmy Walker (70), reigning Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele (71), Australia’s Jason Day (71) and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa are tied for fourth another stroke back at 207.
If Simpson needs proof that he will still have some work to do in the final round, all he needs to remember is what happened to Czechoslovakian golfer Alex Cejka in this tournament in 2009. Cejka took a five-shot lead into the final round and shot a 42 on the front nine on the way to a 79 and an eight-stroke loss to Sweden’s Henrik Stenson.
But Simpson can be buoyed by the fact that no one has ever lost a seven-stroke final-round lead in the history of the PGA Tour.
Simpson’s three-day total tied the previous 54-hole record total in this tournament as established by Australian Greg Norman in 1994. The Great White Shark went on to post 24 under in his victory that year, a number that is certainly within reach for Simpson with the way he’s been playing this week.
“I was pretty satisfied with the round,” Simpson said. “It was a different feeling (from his round on Friday). Today was a little more of about survival. I missed a bunch of birdies but I come away pretty happy with the way I played.”
Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion, gave notice that he would give no quarter with birdies on two of the first four holes. He gave one back with a bogey on the eighth, but got it right back by birdieing the ninth. Simpson then eagled the 11th when he holed out a 99-foot bunker shot.
Simpson bogeyed the 14th with a three-putt, but got that shot back as well with a 3-foot birdied putt on the 17th, a hole he double-bogeyed in Friday’s course-record-tying round. He finished the day with a nervy 18-foot par putt on the closing hole.
“Yes, I was playing in the last group with a big lead, but I still have to hit shots and make putts,” Simpson said. “I try not to make it feel any different. And I will approach my game (on Sunday) the same way I did today. I may adjust my approach if the golf course is a little firmer, but all in all I’m just trying to repeat what I’ve done in Day 1, 2 and 3.”
The best scores in the third round came from Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, who each carded 65s to climb from just off the cutline to into a tie for ninth at 208, 11 shots off Simpson’s lead. They are tied at that number with Englishmen Tommy Fleetwood (68) and Ian Poulter (69), Harold Varner III (70), Matt Kuchar (71) and Patrick Cantlay (74).
Woods’ round featured eight birdies over his first 12 holes and a lone bogey at the 14th. The 65 was his lowest career score in 66 going around TPC Sawgrass. It also marked his lowest score of the season, his best since a 65 at the 2015 Wyndham Championship and his lowest score to par since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Woods admitted that after reaching 8 under through 12 holes, he felt a course-record 62 was within reach.
“Realistically, I probably could have got a couple more out of it and got to 10 for the day,” Woods said afterward. “Eventually I was going to put all the pieces together. Today, for the most part, I did that. I was just trying to shoot something in the mid-60s today, and managed to do it.”
Meanwhile, Spieth had three birdies and a bogey on the front nine, three more birdies on holes 11-13, a bogey on the 14th and three straight birdies to close the round. He was 17-for-17 on putts from 10 feet or closer.
“I’m telling you, if you don’t miss a putt inside of 15 feet, golf is pretty easy,” Spieth said after the round. “But when you are making half of them, like I was the first round, then it’s a harder game. So I felt like I had the freedom in the stroke.”
Conversely, there were also some really bad rounds on Saturday, like Zach Johnson’s 78, which included a string of four straight bogeys from holes 5-8, others on 10 and 16 and a double on the 17th. He birdied the 11th and, ultimately, the 18th.
Then there was a 79 by Canada’s Nick Taylor — who was even par for the day until a bogey on the 14th, a quadruple-bogey 7 on the 17th and a double-bogey on the closing hole — and an 81 signed for by Brendan Steele, who has seven bogeys and a double-bogey, and no birdies, on his card Saturday.
“There is a lot of time tomorrow morning, but I will be busy with packing and everything to keep myself occupied,” Simpson said. “I just want to come out ready and not feel like I’m rushed and stick to the same routine we started with on Thursday and kept throughout the week.”
That likely would be enough to grant Simpson his fifth PGA Tour victory.