AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
PONTE VEDRA BEACH: A tense Kevin Na curled in a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to grab a one-stroke lead over Matt Kuchar after Saturday’s third round of the $9.5 million Players Championship.
The 28-year-old American of Korean heritage, nagged by swing issues that saw him waggle and hesitate before hitting shots, fought through for a bogey-free four-under 68 to stand on 12-under 204 after 54 holes at the US PGA event.
Kuchar found the water off the tee at the island-green 17th hole but salvaged a bogey and then sank a 12-foot par putt at 18 to remain within one stroke of his compatriot entering the final round at the TPC at Sawgrass. Na’s troubles were typified at the 14th tee where he hesitated, made a complete swing well above the ball, began another swing only to stop and yell at himself, then finally smashed the ball deftly into the fairway.
Adding to the pressure was the fact that Na was put on the clock by tournament officials on the back nine and given a time warning for slow play with another bringing a one-shot penalty. But on a windy day, Na was one of only three players not to make a bogey.
Na birdied the par-3 third, par-4 12th and sank a 10-foot birdie putt at the 16th to grab a share of the lead just moments after Kuchar bogeyed 17. That set up Na’s closing birdie and set the stage for a tense duel on the final day.
Kuchar led Na by two strokes at the 17th tee but chunked his shot short of the green. He put his second try four feet from the cup and made the bogey putt. At 18 he went up and down from a pot bunker for par and a round of 69. Kuchar birdied the second and took a bogey at the fourth but then ran off a streak of three birdies in a row starting at the par-3 eighth.
He took a bogey at the par-5 11th, made another birdie at the 12th and sank a six-foot birdie putt at the par-3 13th to stretch his lead to three strokes. He took a bogey at 14 and birdied 15 before a par at 16 ended a roller-coaster run of eight holes without a par.
American Rickie Fowler, coming off a win last week at Quail Hollow, charged into third on 207 with a 66. Americans Ben Curtis and Zach Johnson shared fifth on 209. Fowler, who began the day five strokes off the lead, made an early charge with birdies at the par-5 second, par-3 third and par-4 fifth. Fowler, who won last week at Quail Hollow, is trying to become the first US PGA back-to-back winner since Tiger Woods in 2009.
Only three players have won the Players after a victory the week before — Woods in 2001, Tom Kite in 1989 and Ray Floyd in 1981. Woods, a 14-time major winner who has struggled since winning at Bay Hill in March, fired a par-72 to stand on 214, taking bogeys at the par-4 seventh and 10th holes before answering with birdies at the 11th and par-3 13th.