PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida—Scottie Scheffler won early, holing a chip from deep rough for eagle on the par-5 second hole at The Players Championship to win a bet against his caddie on the number of times the Masters champion chips in during the season.
The bigger payoff was the way Scheffler navigated 26 holes on Saturday—eight in the morning to finish the rain-delayed second round, 18 in the afternoon when the TPC Sawgrass was as soft and vulnerable as it gets—for a seven-under 65 to build a two-shot lead over Min Woo Lee of Australia.
Still to come: A chance for Scheffler to capture another big prize against a strong field, return to No. 1 in the world and cash a $4.5 million winner’s check.
“I would much rather win the tournament than get back to No. 1 in the world,” Scheffler said. “So that will be my focus going into tomorrow, just going out and having a solid round of golf.”
Scheffler capped his long day with what amounted to a two-shot swing.
Lee, the younger brother of US Women’s Open champion Minjee Lee, took three putts from 70 feet on the fringe at the 18th hole on the TPC Sawgrass for a 66. Scheffler, in the final group behind him, hit the ideal approach to the right side of the green and rode the slope to 10 feet for one final birdie.
He was at 14-under 202, and no one else from the top 10 in the world is within seven shots of him at the strongest field of the year.
Scheffler knows enough about Lee, who narrowly got into The Players, and the TPC Sawgrass to realize 18 final holes can feel like a long rollercoaster ride.
Lee holed out for eagle from 131 yards on the first hole and stayed with Scheffler stride-for-stride, and occasionally leading, until the end.
Lee only got into The Players Championship two weeks ago when he narrowly stayed in the top 50 after the Honda Classic. He made news on Thursday when he suffered a cramp on his tee shot at the 15th hole. And now he’s in the final group with the Masters champ.
“Tomorrow could be the biggest day of my life, but I’m going to go out there and have fun again,” Lee said. “It’s been the motto for the last three months. … I’m just out here enjoying my time, and like I said, I just crept into this tournament and making the most of it and soaking it all in.”
Cam Davis of Australia had a 67 and was four shots behind, followed by a group five back that included Tommy Fleetwood and Aaron Rai of England, who made a hole-in-one on the 17th. It was the first time the island green has yielded two aces in the same week. Chad Ramey made one in the opening round.
Jon Rahm, the current No. 1 and three-time winner this year, withdrew before the second round with a stomach ailment. Rory McIlroy had a chance to get back to No. 1, but he missed the cut with rounds of 76-73.
Storms kept half the field from finishing on Friday. Scheffler returned at 7 a.m. with eight holes to play, made a pair of birdies to get within two-shots of 36-hole leader Adam Svensson and then swapped turns at the top with Lee most of the day.
Tom Hoge set the record on the Players Stadium Course when he holed a 10-foot putt for his 10th birdie of the round and a 62.
And to think Hoge had a flight booked home to the Dallas area for Saturday afternoon. He opened with a 78, bounced back with a 68 and figured his 2-over total would still not be enough when the second round finished Saturday morning.
The biggest help came from Luke List. He was short of the par-5 ninth green in three, some 40 feet from the hole. Get up-and-down for par and the cut would be 1 over and 11 players would have missed the cut. He made double bogey. Hoge was among those who got in. And he took it from there, missing only two greens and converting all the important putts.
Hoge now is at eight under, six shots out of the lead.
“I finished yesterday afternoon actually and woke up this morning to watch the scores for a few hours there, and that was all over the place,” Hoge said. “So I just felt fortunate to have tee time this morning. Just tried to go out and make as many birdies as I could.”
He didn’t know it was a course record until he signed his card.
Svensson, meanwhile, made birdie on his final hole of the second round after hitting into a hospitality tent next to the ninth. That gave him a 67 and a two-shot lead, and he started with a birdie. But it got sideways quickly, particularly when he made a mess of the 14th and took triple bogey. He shot 75 and fell eight back.
Lee has plenty at stake. A two-time winner on the European tour, he can earn Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour status with a win, and a decent finish is likely to move him high enough in the world ranking to get in the Masters. There’s also that small matter of a $4.5 million payoff to the winner.
“Sawgrass is scary,” he said. “There’s a lot of times where people have faltered and you don’t want to be one of those. But as long as you can control your emotions and go out there and have fun—which I did—it was fun playing really good golf.”
Image credits: AP