PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It’s no coincidence that Saturday’s lowest scores at the windblown TPC Sawgrass came from Bubba Watson and Justin Thomas.
Watson carded a 4-under 68 to a spot that both teased and tormented him with his signature Dye deception. In 13 career Players Championship appearances, he has yet to record a top 25, with just seven of 43 career innings in the 60s.
“Blind shots are very difficult for me,” Watson said, “and this golf course designer knew what he was trying to do. I’m the perfect person who fell for the trap on every hole .
But with peak wind gusts reaching 43mph on Saturday, Watson had more room for artistic expression. On his last hole of the day he had 151 yards to the hole and cut a 5 iron cut. On a day when he had to fully commit to every shot, he shaped, sliced and hooked better than anyone.
It was also a day for Thomas to relent.
He was for a long time one of the best iron players in the game, but these windy conditions accentuated his considerable gifts.
Playing in the fan on the 17th, he drove a 6 iron perfectly and came away with a stress-free par.
On the 18th – a dastardly windy par 4 that averaged more than a stroke over par – he found the right side of the fairway, then knocked down a fairway wood 193 yards.
“Justin Thomas has just hit three straight shots which shows why he is such a brilliant golfer,” tweeted DP World Tour player Eddie Pepperell. “Immense ball control.”
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Most enjoyable for Thomas, however, was his shot on the 167-yard third hole.
Rory McIlroy’s tee shot was swallowed up in the wind and missed well to the left of the green.
Collin Morikawa’s ball drifted gently to the right.
Normally the hole calls for an 8 iron, maybe a stomped 9, but Thomas drilled a 5 iron straight into the wind, 15 feet.
“It’s just good golf,” NBC Sports’ Roger Maltbie said off-air.
“It was exactly where I was looking, exactly the distance I was trying to hit,” Thomas said afterwards. “I’m just trying to refine a 5 iron with that amount of wind, it was probably the purest shot I hit today.”
Oh, there were plenty.
Despite playing in a cool, steady 25mph breeze, he hit 14 greens and got more than four shots from tee to green.
“I think it’s one of those days that could be really fun to play if you’re at home,” he said, “but it’s not really fun when it’s TPC Sawgrass for the players, and you’re kind of on the cut line to start the day. It’s so tough.”
The defending champion started the second round at even par, but climbed the standings with a bogey-free 69 on a day when the scoring average was just over 75.
When play was suspended for the day, it had gone tied for 15and – but crucially, at 3-under 141, he had a share of the 36-hole clubhouse’s low score among late starters. Temperatures will be in the 30s, with a 20mph wind, when the rest of the peloton resumes the course on Sunday morning.
“I’m delighted with the way I played and the way I competed today,” he said. “It was a very, very tough day, and I just stayed very patient and executed well.”
Varying the trajectory of his irons and confidently shaping the ball back and forth, Thomas’ game was reminiscent of his childhood idol, Tiger Woods, who would surely have relished a day apart like this. Of modern players, Thomas has arguably the most comprehensive collection of moves to call upon: fades and draws, moon balls and darts, fast slingers and dead hand holds.
“He can drive his irons really well,” McIlroy said. “He really showed today what he does well and what he excels at. A 3 under par [round] there, it’s a hell of a ride.
Says Morikawa: “Watching JT there, he was pretty much error free. That’s how you should be there.
That’s how Thomas made up so much ground. And that’s how Watson did it too.
It was no coincidence, not in this wind.
“Our creativity has to contribute to the number of shots we can hit,” Thomas said. “Bubba is a good player. I would like to think that I am a good player. We just had a good day.
In fact, compared to the rest of the field, it was a awesome day – and a monument to their golfing genius.