PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Scottie Scheffler won early, holing a chip shot from deep rough for an eagle on the par-5 second hole of the Players Stadium Course to come out on top in a bet against his caddie on the number of times he chips in during the season.
The bigger payoff was the way Scheffler navigated 26 holes on Saturday — eight in the morning to finish the rain-delayed second round, 18 in the afternoon when the track was as soft and vulnerable as TPC Sawgrass gets – for a 7-under-par 65 to build a two-shot lead over Australia's Min Woo Lee in The Players Championship.
Still to come: A chance for Scheffler to capture another big prize against a strong field, return to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking and cash a $4.5 million winner's check.
"I would much rather win the tournament than get back to No. 1 in the world," said Scheffler, currently No. 2 behind Jon Rahm, who withdrew from the tournament due to illness Friday, before the start of the second round. "So that will be my focus going into tomorrow, just going out and having a solid round of golf."
Scheffler capped his long day with what amounted to a two-shot swing.
Lee, the younger brother of LPGA Tour star Minjee Lee, took three putts from 70 feet on the fringe at the 18th hole for a 66. Scheffler, in the final group behind him, hit the ideal approach to the right side of the green and rode the slope to 10 feet for one final birdie. He was at 14-under 202, and no one else from the top 10 in the world is within seven shots of him in a tournament featuring the strongest field of the year so far.
Scheffler knows enough about the 24-year-old Lee, who narrowly got into this event, and enough about this course to realize 18 final holes can feel like a long roller-coaster ride.
Lee holed out for an eagle from 131 yards on the first hole and stayed with Scheffler stride for stride — even occasionally leading — until the end.
Lee only got into the 144-man field two weeks ago, when he narrowly stayed in the top 50 after the Honda Classic. He made news Thursday when he cramped up during his tee shot at the 15th hole. And now he's in the final group with the reigning Masters champion.
"Tomorrow could be the biggest day of my life, but I'm going to go out there and have fun again," Lee said. "It's been the motto for the last three months. ... I'm just out here enjoying my time, and like I said, I just crept into this tournament, and making the most of it and soaking it all in."
Another Australian, Cam Davis, had a 67 and was four shots out of the lead, alone in third. He was followed by a group five strokes back of Scheffler that included Tommy Fleetwood (65) and Aaron Rai (65) of England, who made a hole-in-one on the 17th. It was the first time the island green has yielded two aces in the same week.
Chad Ramey made one in the opening round, and his third-round 68 had him alongside Fleetwood, Rai and South Africa's Christian Bezuidenhout (69).
With no Rahm around, the opportunity was there for both Scheffler and third-ranked Rory McIlroy, but the four-time major winner from Northern Ireland missed the cut with rounds of 76-73.
McIlroy was coming off a runner-up finish at last weekend's Arnold Palmer Invitational. So was Harris English, but like McIlroy, he was among those outside Saturday's cut line, which was at 2 over.
English followed his opening 78 with a 71, and fellow Baylor School graduate Luke List also missed the cut, though he was closer at 77-70.
Two other former Red Raiders standouts pushed through, with Keith Mitchell tied for 47th at 2 under after a third-round 68 and Stephan Jaeger another stroke back and tied for 57th after a 69.
Storms kept half the field from finishing Friday. Scheffler returned at 7 a.m. with eight holes to play, made a pair of birdies to get within two-shots of 36-hole leader Adam Svensson, then swapped turns at the top with Lee most of the day.
Tom Hoge set the record on the Players Stadium Course when he holed a 10-foot putt for his 10th birdie of the round and a 62.
And to think: Hoge had a flight booked home to the Dallas area for Saturday afternoon. He opened with a 78, bounced back with a 68 and figured his 2-over total would still not be enough when the second round finished Saturday morning.
The biggest help came from List. He was short of the par-5 ninth green in three shots, some 40 feet from the hole. Get up and down for par and the cut would be 1 over and 11 players would have missed the cut.
He made a double bogey.
Hoge was among those who got in, and he took it from there, missing only two greens and converting all the important putts. Now he's at 8 under, six shots out of the lead.
"I finished yesterday afternoon actually and woke up this morning to watch the scores for a few hours there, and that was all over the place," Hoge said. "So I just felt fortunate to have a tee time this morning. Just tried to go out and make as many birdies as I could."
He didn't know it was a course record until he signed his card.
Lee has plenty at stake. A two-time winner on the European circuit, he can earn PGA Tour status with a win, and a decent finish is likely to give him a high enough ranking to get in the Masters next month. There's also that small matter of a $4.5 million payoff to the winner.
"Sawgrass is scary," he said. "There's a lot of times where people have faltered, and you don't want to be one of those. But as long as you can control your emotions and go out there and have fun — which I did — it was fun playing really good golf."