VEDRA PONTE BEACH, FLORIDA – It’s no coincidence that Bubba Watson and Justin Thomas had the lowest scores on Saturday at the wind-whipped TPC Sawgrass.
They’re both artists.
Watson shot a 4-under 68 at a course that has both teased and tormented him in the past with its Dye deceit. He has yet to finish in the top 25 in 13 tries at The Players Championship, with only seven of his 43 career rounds in the 60s.
“Blind shots are extremely difficult for me,” Watson remarked, “and the designer of this golf course knew exactly what they were attempting to do.” “I’m the ideal individual who fell into every hole’s trap.”
Watson, though, was given greater room for artistic expression on Saturday, with highest wind gusts reaching 43 mph. He had 151 yards to the pin on his final hole of the day and carved a cut 5-iron. On a day when he had to give everything he had to each shot, he shaped, cut, and hooked like no one else.
It was also flex day for Thomas.
He’s long been one of the game’s best iron players, but the windy circumstances further enhanced his abilities.
On 17, he hit a flawless flighted 6-iron into the wind and came away with a stress-free par.
He located the right side of the fairway on 18 — a devilish, into-the-wind par 4 that averaged more than a stroke over par – and then hammered down a fairway wood from 193 yards.
“Justin Thomas just played three consecutive strokes that demonstrate why he is such a fantastic golfer,” DP World Tour player Eddie Pepperell tweeted. “Extremely good ball control.”
Thomas was most pleased with his drive on the 167-yard third hole.
The wind devoured Rory McIlroy’s tee shot, which went considerably left of the green.
Collin Morikawa’s ball slid to the right, obediently.
Normally, an 8-iron, maybe a stepped-on 9, is required for this hole, but Thomas hammered a 5-iron right through the wind to 15 feet.
While off-air, NBC Sports’ Roger Maltbie noted, “It’s just proper golf.”
Afterward, Thomas commented, “That was exactly where I was looking, exactly the yardage I was attempting to hit it.” “It was probably the purest shot I hit today, just trying to finesse a 5-iron in there with that much wind.”
There were a lot of them.
He hit 14 greens and gained more than four strokes on the field from tee to green despite playing in a cold, constant 25-mph breeze.
“It’s one of those days I think would be incredibly enjoyable to play if you were at home,” he explained, “but it’s not really fun when it’s TPC Sawgrass for The Players and you’re kind of around the cut line to start the day.” It’s extremely difficult.”
The defending champion started the second round at even par, but shot a bogey-free 69 on a day when the scoring average was slightly over 75.
When play was called off for the day, he was tied for 15th place, but more crucially, he had a share of the low 36-hole clubhouse score among the late starters, at 3-under 141. When the rest of the field returns to the course on Sunday morning, temperatures will be in the 30s with a 20-mph wind.
“I’m really happy with how I competed and how I played today,” he added. “It was an extremely difficult day, and all I did was be patient and execute properly.”
Thomas’ play was reminiscent of his boyhood idol, Tiger Woods, who would have cherished a day like today, varying the trajectory of his irons and comfortably shaping the ball both ways. Thomas possesses the most shot options of any current player, including fades and draws, moon balls and stingers, quick slingers, and dead-hand wedges.
“He can really flight his irons,” McIlroy added. “He truly demonstrated tonight what he excels at and what he does well.” Out there, a 3-under-par [round] is a tremendous round.”
“Watching JT out there, he was pretty much mistake-free,” Morikawa said. That’s the way it has to be out there.”
That’s how Thomas was able to cover so much ground in such a short amount of time. Watson did it the same way.
In this wind, it wasn’t a fluke.
“Our inventiveness needs to contribute to the number of shots we can make,” Thomas explained. “Bubba is an excellent player. I’d like to believe I’m a competent player. We’ve just had a fantastic day.”
In fact, in comparison to the rest of the field, it was a fantastic day – and a testament to their golfing prowess.