Xander Schauffele settles down, moves up to lead at Players

AP photo by Lynne Sladky / Xander Schauffele blasts from the sand on the eighth hole of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during the third round of The Players Championship on Saturday in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
AP photo by Lynne Sladky / Xander Schauffele blasts from the sand on the eighth hole of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during the third round of The Players Championship on Saturday in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Xander Schauffele kept his head down and tried to post his best score Saturday in his bid to make up a four-shot deficit in The Players Championship, and he did better than that.

A bold shot from the pine straw led to one birdie. A 60-foot birdie putt gave him his first lead. And a superb up-and-down finish on the 18th hole gave him a 7-under-par 65 and allowed him to stay one shot ahead of Wyndham Clark, the reigning U.S. Open champion who had set such a tough 36-hole pace with back-to-back 65s on Thursday and Friday at TPC Sawgrass.

"At times in the past, I'll get a bit ahead of myself and lose a little bit of confidence when I shouldn't," Schauffele said. "Today I tried to stay in my own little box there."

Clark had his head down for another reason. His sand wedge to the famed island green on the par-3 17th of the Stadium Course came up some 15 yards short of dry land, and he stooped over in disbelief. Remarkably, he reloaded and hit the next one to seven feet from the cup to escape with a bogey.

"It's unfortunate on a hole that's so iconic and has a bunch of trouble to have kind of your worst swing of the day," Clark said. "But yeah, I followed it with a great swing and a great putt. I'm in the final group tomorrow, which is huge."

Schauffele had another bogey-free round, this one impressive because he hit only two fairways on the back nine amid swirling wind, and was at 17-under 199 through 54 holes.

Clark also saved par on the 18th for a 70 and will be in the final group, no longer in the lead but very much alive. He also was quick to find perspective on his bogey at the 17th, knowing it could have been far worse.

"I'm hoping that's a huge point in the tournament, and we look back after tomorrow and look at that hole and say, 'Hey, that was maybe the shot and the putt that meant it all,'" Clark said.

  photo  AP photo by Lynne Sladky / Xander Schauffele, left, and Wyndham Clark walk to the fifth hole during the third round of The Players Championship on Saturday in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

For a short time on a balmy afternoon, it looked like The Players Championship could turn into a two-man race between Clark and Schauffele. But there were enough birdies, enough bold shots and big rallies, to suddenly make Sunday filled with possibilities at the 50th edition of the PGA Tour's premier tournament.

Brian Harman, the reigning British Open champion, made up ground on the front nine, then started the back nine with four birdies in five holes on his way to a 64. He was two shots back.

Maverick McNealy and England's Matt Fitzpatrick, the 2022 U.S. Open champ, each had a 68. They were four shots behind, each with a share of brilliance and blunders.

Scottie Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking coming off a dominant win last Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational but coping with a neck pain this week, kept alive his chances of becoming the first repeat winner of The Players Championship. He birdied his last three holes for his 26th straight round under par this year, a 68 that left him in range at five shots behind. He was joined by Sahith Theegala (67).

"I wouldn't say I'm out of the tournament," Scheffler said. "I'm definitely on the outside looking in, but a hot day tomorrow could go a long way."

All four Baylor School graduates on the PGA Tour made it to TPC Sawgrass this year, but Saturday wasn't their day.

The completion of the second round in the morning didn't change a projected cut of 1 under, which meant Stephan Jaeger and Luke List couldn't play on. Harris English and Keith Mitchell, both among the top 30 at that point, were able to stick around but tumbled down the leaderboard. English shot a 75 and was tied for 51st at 3 under, with Mitchell (76) among those in 66th at par.

Through three rounds, Schauffele has only one hole over par, a double bogey on the 11th hole Friday. Making up ground was more about making birdies, and he was up to the task, even if it didn't look that way at the start.

Schauffele, winless since the Scottish Open in July 2022, missed a four-foot birdie putt on the first hole, and Clark hit from deep rough to five feet and converted for a bogey.

Schauffele kept pecking away with birdies, closed to within one shot at the turn, caught Clark with a birdie on the reachable par-4 12th, then took his first lead with the long birdie at 14.

He lost some chances coming in, though. Schauffele went from deep rough to the soft sand of a bunker some 45 short of the green on the par-5 16th, taking an easy birdie out of the picture. Then, after Clark went into the water on the 17th with a front pin, Schauffele went well long and did well to lag his putt across and down the slope to tap-in range.

He also found the pine straw right of the 18th fairway, leading him to scramble for par from a thick collar of rough to the right of the green.

"When you make 58-footers, you kind of get up and down on holes like 18 from the front rough, it takes a little bit of stress off certain parts of your game," Schauffele said. "All in all, it was a bit of a grind. Wind was swirling a little bit for both of us, for everyone out there on the back nine. Just was happy to stay in it and move on moving day."

And now he has two major champions right on his heels. Clark is going after his second victory this year — he won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am with a third-round 60 when weather shortened the tourney to 54 holes — and playing better golf than anyone but Scheffler. Harman is looking for his first win since he captured the claret jug at Royal Liverpool last summer.

The surprise in the mix was McNealy, recently returning from a back injury. He delivered plenty of thrills down the stretch, starting with a 43-yard shot he holed for a birdie on the 14th. He hit a 60-foot birdie putt from off the green on the 15th, and then holed that pitch from 35 feet for par.

He put a wedge into the water on the 16th — there was no recovering from that one — and then made a birdie on the 17th to put himself into the conversation on Sunday.

"If it was the short game Olympics, I probably won gold," he said. "It was a really scrappy day."

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