PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was no coincidence that the lowest scores carded Saturday at wind-blown TPC Sawgrass came courtesy of Bubba Watson and Justin Thomas.
Artists, both of them.
Watson carded a 4-under 68 at a place that has both teased and tormented him with its characteristic Dye deception. In 13 career appearances at The Players Championship, he has yet to record a top-25 finish, with only seven of 43 career rounds in the 60s.
“Blind shots are very difficult for me,” Watson said, “and this golf course, the designer knew what they were trying to do. I’m the perfect person that fell into the trap on every hole.”
But with maximum wind gusts reaching 43 mph on Saturday, Watson was afforded more room for artistic expression. On his final hole of the day, he had 151 yards to the pin and carved a cut 5-iron. On a day when he had to commit fully to each shot, he shaped, sliced and hooked better than anybody.
It also was a day for Thomas to flex.
He has long been one of the game’s premier iron players, but these blustery conditions accentuated his considerable gifts.
Playing into the fan on 17, he perfectly flighted a 6-iron and walked away with a stress-free par.
On 18 – a dastardly, into-the-wind par 4 that averaged more than a shot over par – he found the right side of the fairway and then knocked down a fairway wood from 193 yards.
“Justin Thomas has just hit three shots in a row that show why he is such a brilliant golfer,” tweeted DP World Tour player Eddie Pepperell. “Immense ball control.”
Most pleasing to Thomas, however, was his strike on the 167-yard third hole.
Rory McIlroy’s tee shot was swallowed up by the wind and missed well left of the green.
Collin Morikawa’s ball meekly drifted right.
Normally, the hole calls for an 8-iron, maybe a stepped-on 9, but Thomas drilled a 5-iron straight through the wind, to 15 feet.
“It’s just proper golf,” said NBC Sports’ Roger Maltbie while off-air.
“That was exactly where I was looking, exactly the yardage I was trying to hit it,” Thomas said afterward. “Just trying to finesse a 5-iron in there with that amount of wind, that was probably the purest shot I hit today.”
Oh, there were plenty.
Despite playing in a cool, steady, 25-mph breeze, he hit 14 greens and gained more than four shots on the field from tee to green.
“It’s one of those days I think could be really fun to play if you’re home,” he said, “but it’s not really fun when it’s TPC Sawgrass for The Players, and you’re kind of around the cut line to start the day. It’s so hard.”
The defending champion began the second round at even par but charged up the leaderboard with a bogey-free 69 on a day when the scoring average was a shade over 75.
When play was suspended for the day, he’d moved all the way up into a tie for 15th – but most importantly, at 3-under 141, he had a share of the low 36-hole clubhouse score among the late-early starters. Temperatures will be in the 30s, with a 20-mph wind, when the rest of the field gets back on the course Sunday morning.
“I’m thrilled with how I played and how 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 both ways, Thomas’ play was reminiscent of his boyhood idol, Tiger Woods, who surely would have relished a separating day like this. Of the modern players, Thomas has arguably the deepest collection of shots to call upon: fades and draws, moon balls and stingers, speedy slingers and dead-hand wedges.
“He can flight his irons really well,” McIlroy said. “He really showed today what he does well and what he excels at. A 3-under-par [round] out there is a helluva round.”
Said Morikawa: “Watching JT out there, he was pretty much mistake-free. That’s how you’ve gotta be out there.”
That’s how Thomas made up so much ground. And that’s how Watson did, too.
It wasn’t a fluke, not in this wind.
“Our creativity has to help in the amount of shots we can hit,” Thomas said. “Bubba’s a good player. I’d like to think I’m a good player. We just had a good day.”
Actually, relative to the rest of the field, it was a great day – and a monument to their golfing genius.