PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The easy way out was to go low under a tree 20 feet in front of Rory McIlroy.
He was looking up.
Coming off a 10-foot eagle and a 20-foot birdie that tied him for the lead Friday in The Players Championship, McIlroy risked wasting that great finish with a bold shot. His caddie, Harry Diamond, tried to talk him out of it. McIlroy instead opened the face of a pitching wedge and sent it straight up in the air, letting the right-to-left wind carry it onto the green 15 feet away.
“I stepped over it a couple times like, ‘No, I think I can do this,’” McIlroy said. “I just opened up a wedge as much as I could and just took a swipe at it, and the ball sort of came out the way I thought.”
He got his par for a 7-under 65 and was tied Tommy Fleetwood, who had a better start than McIlroy finished. Fleetwood opened birdie-eagle-birdie on his way to a 67, giving him a share of the 36-hole lead for the second straight week.
They were at 12-under 132, three shots clear of anyone else.
And they were nine shots ahead of Tiger Woods, who played solid golf except for one hole — the wrong hole. Woods put two balls into the water on the notorious par-3 17th, leading to a quadruple bogey that wiped out a good start and forced him to settle for a 71.
Given the nature of this golf course — and a forecast for a different wind — the fun might just be starting.
And that’s as far as McIlroy was willing to look.
“Winning is a byproduct of doing all the right things, and I feel like if I can continue to do those things well, hopefully I do end up with the trophy on Sunday,” he said. “But there’s a lot of golf to play before that.”
The biggest surprise from the group three shots behind might be the 48-year-old Furyk, mainly because he didn’t think he would be at Sawgrass. After devoting two years as Ryder Cup captain, his world ranking plunged 194 spots to No. 231. But a great finish at the start of the Florida swing to tie for ninth moved him high enough in the FedEx Cup to get into the strongest field in golf at the last minute.
And then he delivered his best score in 80 rounds over 25 years, a 64 that put him in the group at 9-under 135.
“I thought this was an off week,” Furyk said. “It’s a nice gift, an opportunity.”
Ian Poulter, who resurrected his PGA Tour career with a runner-up finish at The Players two years ago, had a 66 and was three shots behind, along with Abraham Ancer of Mexico (66) and Brian Harman (69).
Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player, also had an eagle-birdie-par finish for a 68. He was in the group five shots behind.
McIlroy hasn’t won since Bay Hill a year ago, though he has had his chances for more. The Arnold Palmer Invitational last week was the ninth time in his last 30 tournaments dating to the start of 2018 that he played in the final group without winning.
But he has been patient. He says his attitude has been good all year, and it can be tested severely on the Players Stadium Course. There is no sense of panic or a need to start pressing if he gets into that position again.
“I just need to keep seeing red numbers,” McIlroy said. “I don’t need a win. I’m not putting myself under pressure to ... again, winning is a byproduct of doing all the things that I’m doing well. ... If I focus on winning, what goes into that?”
After a sluggish start — even par through seven holes — McIlroy ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch around the turn, and then he poured it on with a 4-iron to 10 feet on the par-5 16th for eagle, and a wedge to the back shelf on the island green for a 20-foot birdie putt.
That was followed by his great escape, so good that McIlroy smiled as he watched a replay of the shot on the large video board as he walked to the green. His 15-foot birdie putt stopped just short of the hole.
McIlroy said he told NBC Sports analyst Roger Maltbie that “playing with Phil the last two days maybe inspired me to play a shot like that.” That would be Phil Mickelson, who didn’t play very inspired, at all. Mickelson had another 74 and missed the cut at The Players for the sixth time in the last seven years.
Fleetwood knows a thing or two about fast starts. Last month in Mexico, he started eagle-eagle.
This felt just as good, perhaps because of his standing in the tournament. Fleetwood, who shared the 18-hole lead, was two behind when he teed off and back in the lead after just two holes. He made a 12-foot birdie on No. 1, holed a bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 second and then made a 25-footer on No. 3.
“I had a great range session warming up, and all you want to do then is make sure you try and take that out onto the course, which was very different,” Fleetwood said. “I had the absolute dream start. ... Today was a little bit more up and down, but it’s going to be. There was a lot of good stuff, and I just feel really happy with it.”
Woods cards highest score on 17 but makes cut
Tiger Woods paused on the ninth green and stared at a nearby leaderboard.
His name would have been on it if not for one hole.
Woods hit two balls in the water at the par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass — the first time he’s done that in 69 rounds at The Players Championship — and carded a quadruple-bogey 7 in the second round Friday. It was his worst score at the famed island green and matched his highest on any par 3 in 24 years on the PGA Tour.
Woods rebounded with two birdies on the front side, leading to a 1-under 71 and leaving him at 3-under 141 for the tournament.
He was nine shots behind co-leaders Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy, but felt he was still within range heading to the weekend.
“Everyone who makes the cut, anyone who makes the cut, has a chance to win this golf tournament,” said Woods, who was tied for 39th.
Woods was 5 under and tied for eighth, two shots off the lead at the time, when he approached the course’s signature hole. Thousands of fans surrounded the murky lagoon and were shocked when Woods’s wedge shot from 146 yards away strayed a little left, landed pin high and rolled off the green. It went through the rough, across a wood beam and plunked into the water.
“I was a bit surprised it went that far,” said Woods, who made par or birdie on every other hole Friday. “I took something off that wedge and it flew a lot further than I thought. The other guys took a little read off of that.”
Woods said he would have dialed back his swing had he hit after playing partners Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson. But he was the first to play.
He made a beeline to the drop area and promptly hit another into the drink. This time, he hit another wedge too flat and too hot. The ball one-hopped off the green and into the water.
“Both shots I’m just trying to hit the ball into the slope and just walk away with a 20-, 25-footer and move on about my business,” Woods said. “I was pretty ticked, no doubt about that, and I was bound and determined to get it all back and get it back to (5 under), and I thought that would have been a hell of a fight. Ended up getting back to 3 (under).
“Still was a good fight to get to that point, but as of right now I’m six back, which is definitely doable on this golf course, especially with the weather coming in.”
The forecast calls for cooler temperatures and a change in wind direction over the weekend, which could make scoring tougher on the Stadium Course.
Woods likes the way he’s played so far — aside from the one hole.
“I’m very happy with the way I’ve been grinding around this golf course,” he said. “I’ve missed a few opportunities to get up-and-down for birdie. Overall, I think I’ve putted pretty solidly. Other than 17 today, I really haven’t done a whole lot wrong. I very easily could be up near that lead. There’s no way I would be leading, but I would be close enough to that lead given the weekend and the forecast.”
Woods said his neck — soreness caused him to miss the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week — felt “fine.”
He had no excuses for what happened at 17. Woods had hit four balls into the water during his previous 68 rounds at the Players. He had carded a double-bogey four times, including in the final round in 2018.
“Number-wise and club-wise, it shouldn’t be that hard,” Woods said. “But we all know if you land it up on top, it’s got a good chance of getting out of here. And that’s the tricky part: It’s just a wedge and you want to get it somewhere up there where you got a chance to make birdie, but you just can’t afford to land it too far up on top.”