PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Alex Cejka could see chaos all around him at The Players Championship, or at least hear it through the groans of a scorching Saturday at the TPC Sawgrass that delivered so many meltdowns.
He was among the few to survive, taking on the flag with an 8-iron on the final hole that set up a five-foot birdie for an even-par 72 and a five-shot lead, the largest after three rounds in the 36 years of this prestigious event.
Time to exhale? Not quite.
In a tournament full of surprises, the biggest of all might be his date in the final round Sunday: Tiger Woods.
Woods didn’t look like a player who should be in contention, not after having to play one shot left-handed from the base of a pine, missing one shot by 40 feet with a wedge in his hand and looking increasing frustrated at birdie chances that slipped away.
But back-to-back birdies, followed by a huge break on the 18th hole, changed his fortunes.
His 2-under 70 turned out to be good enough to move up 20 spots into a six-way tie for second, in the final pairing Sunday with a 38-year-old who has never held a final-round lead on U.S. soil.
“It’s going to be tough,” Cejka said. “He’s the best player. It’s going to be a good challenge for me. I know I have a lead, but it’s against not only Tiger but against the rest of the field. I’ve got to play well tomorrow to win here.”
Cejka was at 11-under 205 and doesn’t seem to be all that intimidated.
He recalled beating Woods the last time they were paired in the final round of a big event — that was the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, when Woods was a 20-year-old amateur. Cejka shot 67 to finish 11th; Woods had a 70.
And the Czech-born German is going with a familiar Sunday attire — red shirt and black pants — a tradition for Woods in the final round.
“Hopefully, it works for me, too,” Cejka said. “It’s nice to watch the best player in the world, but I’ve got to focus again on my game tomorrow and let him work a little bit.”
In Woods’ only victory this year since returning from knee surgery, he matched his PGA Tour best with a five-shot comeback against Sean O’Hair in the final pairing at Bay Hill.
Even so, Woods was not alone in his pursuit.
Henrik Stenson was two shots behind until he bogeyed three of the last five holes, nearly chipping into the water on the 16th. He wound up with a 73, and was in the six-way tie for second that included Woods, two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (71), Jonathan Byrd (71), Ben Crane (72) and Ian Poulter, who didn’t make a single birdie on his way to a 75.
Calgary’s Stephen Ames shot a 75 for a three-round total of 216, 11 strokes out of the lead. Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont., was a stroke further back after a 73.