PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Much like his entire career, Jerry Kelly was just another player on the golf course Friday at The Players Championship.
Tiger Woods kept the biggest gallery wondering how much longer they would see him when he flirted with missing the cut until he delivered a moment rarely seen of late. He made a putt that mattered, a 10-foot birdie that allowed him to stick around for two more days.
In the afternoon, Rory McIlroy made it easy on himself – by his standard at the TPC Sawgrass – with a dull round of 71 that kept him in contention. Dull can be good on the Stadium Course that meted out its share of punishment.
And the island-green 17th was wild as ever.
What most everyone missed was the 48-year-old Kelly carving up the front nine with five birdies that carried him to a 7-under 65, giving him the low round this week and share of the lead with Kevin Na.
“I enjoy adrenaline,” Kelly said. “I am 48. I know it almost ravages the body as much as it helps it as you start getting older, but I would like to hang out for another couple of days and have some fun with it.”
Kelly and Na, who settled down after a wild start for a 69, where at 8-under 136. Both have some history on this golf course.
Na was the 54-hole lead at The Players three years ago until he faded under intense scrutiny of serious swing issues.
Kelly had a two-shot lead over Woods in 2001 going into a final round that took two days to complete because of storms. Woods went on to win, and two weeks later he completed his grand sweep of the majors at Augusta National.
Fourteen years later, Kelly and Woods are in different roles.
“I figured I would have another chance at this golf course,” Kelly said. “I didn’t think it would be that long, but it’s just strange. This whole career has gone by in the blink of an eye.”
Kelly and Na were two shots clear of Rickie Fowler (69), Chris Kirk (68), Canada’s David Hearn (71) and Branden Grace (67).
Not much is left from all that star power on both ends of the draw at the start of the week.
McIlroy was in a featured grouping of the new generation, but the other two – Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Jason Day – now are old news. Spieth spent too much time trying to save par and finished with a meaningless bogey for a 72 to miss by three shots. Day started the second round tied with McIlroy and had two 7s on his card within four holes. He closed with a double bogey for an 81.
Phil Mickelson, who played in the group ahead of Woods, had two 6s and a 7 on his way to a 76 to miss the cut for the third straight year.
“I was thinking to myself as I was walking around, `I can’t believe I’ve actually won here,’ you know?” Mickelson said.
Woods, in his first start since he showed a remarkable short-game recovery at the Masters, hovered around the cut line most of the day until he got to the par-5 ninth for his last hole. He choked up for a soft pitching wedge to 10 feet, made the birdie and showed the kind of emotion he once reserved for big shots and big moments.
That gave him a 71 for even-par 144, making the cut on the number.
Given the nature of the Stadium Course, and the quality of the field, making the cut on the number means he was only eight shots out of the lead.
“I feel like I’m playing well enough to get myself up there,” Woods said. “I just need one good round and narrow up that gap between myself and the lead, and I feel like I can do that.”
Woods will be paired with Canada’s Graham DeLaet Saturday.
Na was a different player in 2012. He was vilified for his slow play, which he attributed to having the yips with his swing. He simply couldn’t take the club back, and there times that when he did, he would purposely swing over the ball so he could start over. It was difficult to watch. It was even harder on Na.
But he has battled through it and came into The Players at No. 22 in the world ranking.
“I think I’m mentally tougher because I had gone through that, and I’m a lot more happier,” Na said.
Fowler was poised to close in on the lead until his approach on the par-5 16th drifted too far right and went into the water for a bogey. Fowler bounced back with a birdie on the island green at the par-3 17th, and he had a 3-foot birdie attempt that fooled him on the 18th.
Even so, he was two shots behind and brings a little extra motivation with him. In a magazine survey of players, in which they didn’t have to give their names, Fowler and Ian Poulter tied with 24 percent of the vote for the most overrated on tour. Fowler has won twice worldwide and is No. 13 in the world, mainly on the strength of his four top-5 finishes in the majors last year.
“If there’s a time where I need something to kind of give me a kick in the butt, then I can think of that and it will put me in the right frame of mind to go out there and take care of business,” Fowler said.