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.