PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Zach Johnson was motoring along the back nine of the TPC Sawgrass when he finally gave a shot back on the final hole. He was not about to complain.
Johnson made five birdies, twice reaching the par 5s in two, and stayed away from big numbers Friday in The Players Championship for a 6-under 66 and a one-shot lead among the early starters.
Martin Laird wasn’t as lucky.
Right when he was poised to build a comfortable margin going into the weekend, Laird hit into the water on consecutive holes. He got greedy with a 4-iron for his second shot on the par-5 16th and wound up with a bogey, and he went into the water on the island-green 17 and had to hole a 12-footer to escape with bogey. With a bogey on the 18th, Laird gave back four shots on the last three holes.
The good news?
“I’m glad it happened on a Friday, and not on Sunday,” Laird said after a 73 put him in a large group two shots behind.
Rory McIlroy won’t make it to the weekend.
He kept his record perfect at The Players Championship, though in this case that’s not a good thing. McIlroy made an 18-foot birdie putt on his opening hole, and then didn’t make another one in a 4-over 76 that sent him home early again. In three appearances, he has never broken par and never made the cut. It’s the first time McIlroy, who lost in a playoff last week at Quail Hollow, missed since the Wells Fargo Championship a year ago.
“Hopefully, I’m coming back here for another 20 years,” McIlroy said. “If I don’t figure it out on my 20th, there’s something wrong.”
Tiger Woods, trying to avoid missing the cut in consecutive weeks for the first time in his career, birdied four straight holes starting at No. 8, and was one shot above the cut line with three holes to play.
On a course where anything can happen, The Players Championship is a long way from being settled.
Johnson was at 8-under 136, one shot clear of PGA Tour rookie Harris English, who had a 67. As much as the last two holes gave players fits, English birdied them both. He hit a pitching wedge to 12 feet to a back pin on the par-3 17th, and a pitching wedge to 15 feet right of the flag on a front pin at the 18th.
“I was really controlling my wedges today, which I’ve been working on the past couple of weeks,” English said. “And it finally came together.”
Laird was at 6-under 138 along with Charlie Wi (67), Jonathan Byrd (70), Brian Davis (70) and Adam Scott (70), who won The Players Championship in 2004.
Phil Mickelson, inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday night, again didn’t get much out of his round. A winner five years ago at Sawgrass, he had another 71 and still was in the picture going into the weekend.
John Huh matched Johnson’s 66, the low score of the second round. Huh was five shots out of the lead.
McIlroy missing the cut was stunning because he was in such good form all year. Equally surprising was to see Steve Stricker leaving early. Stricker had the longest cut streak on the PGA Tour — 49 events dating to the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine. He played with Mickelson and McIlroy and fell apart with a bogey on the third, and a double bogey from a back bunker on the fourth.
Johnson started with two birdies and felt in control for most of the sunny morning.
“I never really gave the golf course much,” he said. “In other words, I kept it where you need to keep it. My misses were proper. I was aggressive when I could be aggressive. And I caught a couple nice saves in there, too. But when you shoot that kind of score around this golf course — any day in the year, or any week — you’re putting well. Clearly, that’s what I’ve been doing the best.”
Laird was the first person to reach double digits under par — 10 under — with his birdie on the 15th. Then, he hit a beautiful tee shot on the 16th and was in perfect range to think about an eagle.
“It was one of those ones that I had an absolutely perfect number for a 4-iron,” Laird said. “It’s one of those ones that you almost wish that you don’t, and you play a little safer. I hit three or four great iron shots in a row right at the flag and kind of got a little greedy there and tried to fade one in the wind. So that was the first mental mistake I’ve made all week. If you do that on your 16th hole in the second round, you’re doing pretty well.”
He went into the water on the 17th, and his third shot was some 50 feet away. He ran the bogey putt to the back edge of the green, and made a 12-footer for double bogey. He then failed to get up-and-down from right of the 18th green.
Even so, he’s still in the hunt going into the weekend. And that’s all anyone wants on this course, anyway.
“I’ve just got to take out of it that I played the last three in 4-over par, and I’m still third,” Laird said. “So I’m obviously playing some pretty good golf leading up to that. You don’t lose that in the space of three holes. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”