PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — J.B. Holmes defied conventional wisdom on a most unconventional course, walking anything but the straight and narrow at the TPC Sawgrass until he wound up in a most unlikely place Saturday in The Players Championship.
He was tied for the lead with Kyle Stanley.
Holmes didn’t hit a fairway over his last six holes on the wind-swept Players Stadium Course, including one that was so far right off the 14th tee that it went into a water hazard on the 12th hole.
He was among eight players who hit five or fewer fairways in the third round. The other seven had an average score of 76.43. Somehow, Holmes shot 70.
“An adventurous day, for sure,” Holmes said.
Stanley got his mistakes out of the way quickly with three bogeys on his opening four holes, kept a clean card the rest of the way and finished with a tough par save from the bunker behind the 18th green for a hard-fought 72.
They were at 9-under 207, and more adventures await — for more than just them.
Louis Oosthuizen saved par on the 18th for a 73 and was one shot behind. Six other players were only four shots behind, a group that included Masters champion Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter, who thought he had lost his PGA Tour card two weeks ago until a clerical oversight was discovered.
And if the final round is anything like Saturday, it can all change so quickly.
Jon Rahm of Spain went into the third round in a tie for 10th, just five shots behind. He shot 82 and was headed home after missing the 54-hole cut. Of the 82 players on the course, 49 had at least one double bogey. Matt Kuchar had a 9 on the 14th hole and shot a career-high 81 at The Players Championship.
The culprit, as if the TPC Sawgrass isn’t enough, was a wind so treacherous that only one player who teed off after 11:30 a.m. broke 70. That was Si Woo Kim, who didn’t make a bogey until the 16th hole and shot a 68 to get within two shots.
Emiliano Grillo had a 67 and was at 6-under 210, along with Poulter, who had the only bogey-free round. Garcia, Patrick Cantlay (72) and Alex Noren (72) were another shot behind. Pat Perez, in the third group to tee off, had a 66 for the day’s best score and suddenly was in the group just five shots behind.
“No lead can be big enough,” Oosthuizen said. “That’s what makes this golf course great. We’ve been over the years great finishes around this golf course and horrible finishes. It’s a great three finishing holes, and you need to be on your game. You need to hit the ball well and ... try not to do anything heroic when you have the lead.”
Holmes had to be remarkable where he was hitting it.
He opened with 10 straight pars, added a pair of birdies, and then the fun began.
After hitting off the map on the 14th into the water on the 12th hole, he faced a blind shot over the mounds from 230 yards into the wind on the hardest hole on the course. He let it rip, and it flew into the left bunker. He nearly holed that and escaped with bogey, his only dropped shot of the round.
From the pine straw left of the 15th fairway, he managed to get it on the green and lagged beautifully from nearly 60 feet. Another poor drive kept him from going for the green on the 16th, and after a birdie on the island-green 17th, Holmes finished with one more wild drive, one more unlikely par.
“I usually can make a bunch of birdies, so if I can just narrow it down to one bogey, then I’m usually in good shape,” Holmes said.
So many others wish they could have done the same.
Vijay Singh, the 54-year-old Fijian, quickly got within one shot of the lead until it all fell apart. Singh took a double bogey on his fourth hole, a triple bogey on the par-3 eighth by hitting a tee shot into a palmetto bush, and he finished his bad day with two balls into the water on the 17th for a triple bogey. He shot 79.
Phil Mickelson shot 78.
That goes for Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1, who looked as though he might have a chance to at least get in the mix until tiny mistakes led to bogeys, and a big mistake led to double bogey on the 16th hole. Johnson shot 40 on the back nine for a 74 and was 11 shots out.
Defending champion Jason Day had two double bogeys in his round of 73 and was eight shots behind, still hopeful of becoming the first back-to-back winner of this championship. He will play Sunday with Rory McIlroy, another former world No. 1, who shot 71.
“This is a really tough golf course. It doesn’t matter how good you’re feeling, you have to play really well,” Grillo said. “It doesn’t matter who you are.”
Stanley, who just nine months ago was close to losing his PGA Tour card, didn’t panic when he started making bogeys early. And he remembered where he was, at The Players Championship, where nothing ever feels as good — or as bad — as it really is.
“You just kind of have to remind yourself that even though you’re a little bit over par, on the leaderboard I was still in a pretty good spot,” Stanley said.