PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Chris Kirk kept his cool during a rocky patch Saturday and made three consecutive birdies for a 4-under 68 that gave him a one-shot lead at The Players Championship going into the final round that is very much up for grabs.
Kirk went from out of the top 10 to a share of the lead in three holes on the TPC Sawgrass course. He had the lead to himself when Kevin Na three-putted for double bogey on the 18th hole.
What made Saturday so unpredictable was neither the Stadium Course nor the variety of shots, rather a leaderboard crammed with so many players that it was hard to keep track.
Ben Martin fell out of the lead with a bogey on the 18th for a 68, leaving him one shot behind along with Kevin Kisner (67) and Bill Haas (68).
Justin Thomas was tied for the lead, but that was before the leaders teed off. The 22-year-old rookie set a Stadium Course record with 10 birdies in his round of 65 and was two behind, along with Sergio Garcia (67), Scott Brown (69), David Heard (70), Jerry Kelly (72) and Na, who shot a 72.
At the end of the day, 24 players were separated by four shots.
That included Rory McIlroy, the world's No. 1 player, who had a 70 to stay in the mix.
"It seems like half the tour has a chance to win this thing," McIlroy said.
Tiger Woods was part of the other half. He made the wrong kind of history Saturday by making two double bogeys on par 5s for the first time in his career, leading to a 75 that matched his worst score at the TPC Sawgrass. Woods was 13 shots behind and chose not to share his thoughts on the day. He did not speak to the media.
He at least was in good company.
Woods was part of an All-Star cast at the bottom of the leaderboard. The last 10 players have combined for 153 wins on the PGA Tour and 27 majors. The top 10 going into Sunday have combined for 23 tour wins and no majors.
Adding to the dynamic is that three players within two shots of the lead are at The Players for the first time.
"We had a little survey of the first-timers — 'Who do you pick besides yourself to win?' — and I picked Ben Martin," Kisner said. "No, man, everybody talks about pressure and nerves and all that, but we've been through it all. If we've gotten here, we've done tour school, we've won tournaments. Just because it's a bigger stage doesn't mean we're going to [stink] all of a sudden. We'll see what happens tomorrow."
It starts with Kirk because he's the 54-hole leader at 10-under 206. Kirk was going in the wrong direction when he missed a short birdie putt on the 12th, and made bogeys on the next two holes.
"I had a chance to sort of lose it a little bit today," Kirk said. "But I didn't let it bother me, and thankfully was able to birdie the next three to pull out a great round."
And now he gets to do it one more time, with a $10 million purse and five-year tour exemption riding on the outcome.