Playing a game that isn’t easy, on a course notoriously hard, Webb Simpson made a remarkable run at the unthinkable on Friday, flirting with 59 before the diabolical 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass intervened.
Simpson made six consecutive birdies on the back nine to get to 11-under par for the round. But at the par-3 17th and its island green, he bounced a wedge shot off the top of a railroad tie at the front of the green, the ball bouncing over the green and into the water.
The ensuing double-bogey did not prevent him posting a nine-under par 63 that equaled the course record. Rather than leading by seven, he leads by five through 36 holes in the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
“It was a lot of fun,” Simpson said. “I felt like everything was working today. Putts that I’m just trying to get close were going in. I kind of rode the momentum and just kept going.”
His run began with his holing a 34-foot eagle putt on the second hole. He added three more birdies in a front nine of five-under 31, then began his birdie streak at the 11 by holing a three-foot putt. He followed with birdie putts of 18, 22, 18, 28 (from off the green) and four feet to set a tournament record for most consecutive birdie putts.
Then came 17.
“I backed off a couple of times because the wind seemed to be changing and people were yelling at me to hit it,” he said. “Honestly, I felt pretty good over it, but just blocked it a little bit. I was trying to smash it. I don’t think it was a mistake. Just the wrong club, probably.”
Simpson, a former U.S. Open champion, completed 36 holes in 15-under par 129. Charl Schwartzel, Danny Lee and Patrick Cantlay finished at 10-under par 134.
Dustin Johnson, the first-round co-leader, followed his opening 66 with a one-under 71 and fell to eight strokes back.
“I think I’m in a good position,” he said. “Tomorrow I need to come out and shoot a really solid score, but I feel like I’m in a good spot leading into the weekend.
Jason Day, who won the Wells Fargo Championship last week, shot a five-under par 67 and is seven back in his bid to win his third tournament of the year.
“It was nice to be able to get out there and shoot 67,” he said. “I think I started tidying up a few of the areas that I had last Sunday, and I think the swing is coming along. I just need to kind of focus on the good progress that I made thus far and then try and take it into the weekend.”
Tiger Woods, meanwhile, shot a one-under 71 in the morning to finish 36-holes in one-under 143, and for the rest of the day hovered at the cut line. Late in the day, however, the cut moved to one-under and he will play the weekend.
Playing partners Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler shot 73 and 71, respectively, and missed the cut.