PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — At this rate, it appears that no one can beat Webb Simpson, not even Pete Dye. The latter is the renowned architect who designed TPC Sawgrass and its diabolical island-green par-3 17th hole. That vexing locale was no match on Saturday for the player who is dominating The Players.
Simpson had put his tee shot into the water there on Friday, making double bogey and missing out on setting the course record. This time, he put his shot smartly on the green and listened to the growing cheer from the partying crowd as it slowly rolled within 3 feet, 4 inches of the cup. He made his birdie putt, on his way to a record-tying 19 under through three rounds. He will stride onto Dye’s trouble-laden course Sunday with a seven-shot lead over Danny Lee.
Despite water here and there, the challenging bunkering and the possibilities for quirky bounces off the many mounds, there were times when Simpson looked like he was just showing off. Such as his play on the par-5 11th hole, when he blasted out of a bunker and into the hole for an eagle. He finished off a 4-under-par 68 by hitting out of a bunker and making a 17-foot par putt on No. 18.
He even upstaged stars Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, who had both barely made the cut Friday and leaped all the way to a tie for eighth (and a Sunday pairing with each other) by each shooting 65 early in the day. By the end, though, it looked as though Simpson had done the layout of this place.
“You never know when a week like this will come, but looking back I’ve been healthy, I’ve been working on different aspects of my game maybe more than I normally do,” he said. “But a big thing is that I’m comfortable on this golf course. Although I hadn’t played well, I’ve really liked being here.”
Part of that is the knowledge that there are double-bogeys lurking at every turn, especially when the heat really is on. “On Sunday, you’ve got to give this course a little more respect,” he said.
The setting always will have special resonance for him because it was right here last year that he accepted a tip from friend and fellow pro Tim Clark to switch to the claw putting grip. Simpson’s career had been adrift after his practiced method, a long putter anchored at the sternum, was outlawed. The 2012 U.S. Open champion has not won since 2013. Adding to his struggle was the death last year of his father, whom he called his hero, the man who taught him never to quit.
“I’ve been working hard and I’m really hungry. I’m hungry to get back in the winner’s circle,” he said after having tied Greg Norman (1994) for the best third-round score.
Woods and Spieth had the best scores Saturday, with sustained roars rolling over the grounds. “I got my ‘playing feels’ back and it’s just a matter of executing and putting the shots together,” Woods said.
Spieth said hit his driver much more poorly Saturday than he had the previous two days but shot much better. “So, it shows you where it actually matters and that’s on the greens.”
Even better is playing the way Simpson has this week. In the words of Dustin Johnson, admirably at 10 under but nine strokes back: “Webb is obviously playing very, very well and doing everything very good.”