Stage set for Tiger drama on Sunday

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The afternoon was dwindling away, and so was the USA’s hand in The Players Championship. The leaderboard was a mixture of nationalities — German, South Korean, Swedish, (Louisianan), English, another Swede, South African, (St. Simons Islander), and Australian, but the shuffling was still to come. Alex Cejka, the overnight leader from Germany, was still holding steady at the top and would remain so as the shadows lengthened, but he was growing increasingly unsteady the closer he came to the holes where so often this championship is decided.

Through it all, though, one name kept edging up the board after Tiger Woods had long ago finished — and was at his leisure. And Woods had done it with a modest round of 70, just two under par. Cejka is a 37-year-old import who has won 11 times around the world, but never in this country. He escaped from Czechoslovakia when it was Communist, and he was nine years old, in the company of his father, of course. After a disheveled career spread across several continents, Cejka settled in Las Vegas, where his cowpoke gait fit well with the natives. Lately, though, he has been recovering from surgery, and his season has been erratic — only seven cuts in 13 tournaments until arriving on the PGA Tour’s campus course this week.

Cejka opened with a 66, followed with a 67, and was resting in the comfort of a two-stroke lead as the third round began. As it developed, though, you could see the inevitable story taking hand. Even after Tiger Woods checked in with his round of 70 in mid-afternoon, he continued to gain strokes in absentia. The field kept coming back to him, first Kevin Na, then Ian Poulter, Retief Goosen, Brian Davis, Henrik Stenson and without swinging a club, the scene was set for a Sunday shootout with Woods right there in the middle. Just what Dr. Tim Finchem, the chief of all the PGA Tour, would have ordered.

You see, The Players Championship has never been Woods’ cup of tea. He has been a loyal participant in the Tour’s center-stage event since he became eligible in 1997 — except for his surgical absence last year. He won one, in 2001, but otherwise, his performance has ranged anywhere from second to 53rd. He hasn’t finished better than 11th in the past six years. And the thousands who have trudged about this course for years, and repeated their appearance this year, have waited a long time to be able to cheer Tiger to the winner’s circle.

So that is what has brought distinction to The Players this year. Woods has been performing with patience, but at other times with the impatient frustration that comes with the great man’s return to form. This is what Sunday at TPC Sawgrass will be all about this Mother’s Day. As the final holes were played, he was among seven players at six under par, but no matter what his pairing Sunday, he will be the central figure on the course. And you know who’s lapping this up — NBC and its cast of thousands.

8 comments Add your comment

wxwax

May 10th, 2009
8:55 pm

Anyone who watched Woods play on Saturday knows he’s fighting his game. That he was in the final pairing was more a testimony to the failure of others than to his own great golf.

And the fact that he’s been hanging around the leaders since he returned from knee surgery is a testament not to the quality of his golf, but to the strength of his resolve and his will to win.

A man whose game is in a bit of a shambles is still nudging the leaders every time he plays. It’s quite remarkable.

P

May 10th, 2009
9:20 pm

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger….He is fighting himself. I don’t think he will win for a while. Nice try Furman. Tiger was never in it.

Richard Dawson

May 11th, 2009
8:15 am

Tiger’s lost it. On to the next superstar.

Dave

May 11th, 2009
1:18 pm

I’m a retired old pro athlete, both knees and both shoulders replaced by Dr. Andrews, you hit it on the head “wxwax” . . . “A man whose game is in a bit of a shambles is still nudging the leaders every time he plays. It’s quite remarkable.” Remarkable, is an understatement given the level of competitive play on any professional level.

Having played on myself in spite of continuous surgeries to repair issues that slowed me, I can say from experience that your statement is a very profound one, indeed.

FLATS

May 11th, 2009
4:09 pm

Does Tiger play with his own balls?

heartofdarkness

May 12th, 2009
11:05 am

When I saw the headline, I thought, what an odd place for a story about the Tamil Tigers, down to their last redoubt in Sri Lanka. I never thought the AJC sports pages were so… cosmopolitan. Well, congratulations and keep up the good work. Raji

sara

May 12th, 2009
6:43 pm

Tiger is one of the greatest golfers who ever lived, and I’m sure that all the sports writers, TV announcers, and others can hardly stand the fact that Tiger has not won so much recently. Had he not been chasing Nicklaus’ record last year at the US Open and withdrawn from that event, I’m sure his leg would not have been damaged so badly. He will return, but in the meantime it is good to see others win.

Belva Lunsford

May 12th, 2009
10:59 pm

Thought you would like to know that Ruby Young of Omega, Ga. died May 8,2009. She was the lady who led the Omega High School boys baseball team to the state playoffs in the late 50s. She also coached the girls and boys high school basketball teams. She was quite a lady and coach and she left quite an impression on the lives she touched. I am pretty sure you wrote an article about her earlier.