Jay Haas, Fred Couples and Corey Pavin carried the banner for the 40-plus generation today in the third round of The Players Championship, though Tiger Woods continued to creep into possible Sunday contention. With fist-pumping birdie putts of 18 and 24 feet on his last two holes, Woods posted a scrambling 68 and pushed within five shots of 54-hole leaders Padraig Harrington and Jay Haas.
Ireland's Harrington, a European Tour member known for playing at a glacial pace, swiftly recovered after a deflating double bogey with a skulled shot out of a bunker at the 442-yard seventh hole. He pushed back to the top with a run of three birdies in four holes and finished with a 70 and a three-day total of 11-under 205 at TPC at Sawgrass.
Haas, at 49 the oldest man in the field, had his own run of four consecutive birdies starting at No. 10 and had 67 -- 205 to take a share of the lead as he attempts to secure what would be the most significant victory of his 27-year career. He has nine PGA Tour titles, none in major events, and last won a tournament in 1992.
"I didn't have great expectations coming in here," Haas said afterward. "I've been playing well, putting the ball very well. There were a lot of nice five-, six-foot saving putts and a few 20-footers. . . . Everyone calls me 'Old Man.' I've got my reading glasses in the locker room, that kind of thing. But when we play well, it's not a surprise, it's fun. I'm not shocked. I've played well all year."
Haas needs a big-money showing this week to move into the top 10 on the Tour's money list or into the top 50 in the world rankings to qualify for what could be his final Masters. He's currently 15th in earnings with $791,000 and ranked 57th in the world, and a victory likely would be worth far more to him than a $1.17 million payday out of a $6.5 million purse.
Money is not the object of Woods's affection as much as big-time tournament victories -- even non-majors such as this event. And even with his game just slightly off this week, Woods has managed to turn scattershot drives and off-target approaches into improbable birdies and saves of par from sand, grass and pine straw.
Woods's most remarkable recovery might have come at his last hole, the 583-yard No. 9. His attempt to reach the green in two drifted out to the right and landed in deep grass, with the ball not visible. He played it like a sand shot, powering a wedge under the ball and flopping it onto the putting surface. Then he made the 24-footer for one last birdie on his card.
"I'm surprised I'm this close to the lead, no doubt about it," Woods said. "The first day I turned a 77 into a 72. . . . Today I turned a 71 into a 68. . . . I'm definitely fighting myself around this golf course."
It could get far worse Sunday. A front was moving in on the Florida coast overnight with wind and rain and a drop into the sixties forecast for the final round. That will be in marked contrast to today's conditions, a perfect no-wind day with temperatures in the mid-eighties, leading to plenty of below-par scoring -- 36 among the 72 who made the cut.
Woods has five career victories worldwide in which he has been four or more shots behind entering the final 18 holes. His biggest was erasing an eight-shot deficit to Ernie Els at the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic and winning in a playoff. He also trailed by five entering the last round at the 2000 Pebble Beach Pro-Am and has three others from four back.
"I'm looking to where I can legitimately get to those guys tomorrow," he said. "Two birdies on the final two holes were huge. Being at 4 under par puts a big distance between myself and the leaders. I hope I can still get there."
He also insisted the worse the conditions, the better his chances, especially if the wind howls in off the nearby Atlantic, as it's often wont to do.
"Any time it becomes windy on this golf course, it's a mystery to try to figure out what club to pick," Woods said. "You hit it up in the air, and then you hope. . . . If I play a good solid round tomorrow, it makes it a little easier to try to catch the guys."
Maybe all that sun and heat today was the perfect tonic for the forty-something crowd. Couples, who hasn't prevailed on Tour since the '98 Memorial, posted a round of 69 for 9-under 207 and was in a three-way tie for third place two shots off the lead with his pal Davis Love III (70) and defending champion Craig Perks (70) of New Zealand. Entering Sunday, 14 players -- including past champions Couples, Love and Perks -- are within five shots of the co-leaders.
"I'd like to win again," Couples said. "I like this course, and I have to be swinging the club the way I have been the last three days. I've hit a lot of good iron shots and made a lot of birdies. That's what I want to do tomorrow."
Pavin, 43, hasn't won since the 1996 Colonial and also shot 69 today, tied with Irishman Darren Clarke at 8-under 208. Clarke had a 67, the low round in the field, even if he finished bogey-bogey on 17 and 18, and pushed within three shots with a birdie at the difficult 18th.
Like Couples, he also uses Butch Harmon as his swing analyst and teacher, and Clarke said he had also spent time earlier in the year with Bob Rotella, the University of Virginia sports psychologist who works with many pro golfers. "I'm a little bit temperamental now and then as I have been told," he said, "and he certainly put me on the right track."
Perks won here last year with an eagle-birdie-par finish -- including a chip-in at the 507-yard 16th hole -- and was performing similar magic today down the stretch. He chipped in again from high grass right of the pin at 16, then made a 22-foot birdie putt at the infamous island green, 137-yard 17th. At 18, though, he got sloppy with a 3-wood off the tee and drilled it into the pound going down the left side and took bogey, settling for a share of third with Couples and Love.
"I've got the flair for the dramatic," Perks said. "I've hit some phenomenal shots on 16 and 17. . . . There's some magic out there for me, and I have no idea why. . . . I'd like to win again, and tomorrow I've got a great chance. I love this course, and I'm never going to quit."