PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Webb Simpson raced out to a big lead at the Players Championship on Friday and matched the course record at TPC Sawgrass — even with a ball in the water at the famed 17th island green hole.
Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion, matched the record of 63 first set by Fred Couples and shot five other times on the Stadium Course to build a five-shot lead through two rounds of the PGA Tour’s signature event.
At times, it looked easy for him.
“Obviously, when you’re out there competing in a big tournament, you’re as focused as can be, but then at a certain point … you just kind of start laughing,” said Simpson, 32, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour. “Everything is going in. You feel like no matter what, you’re going to make it.
“But at the same time, you’re at TPC Sawgrass, so you know that trouble is everywhere, as you guys saw with me on 17.
“But just a fun day. And it’s rare as a golfer where everything is working well. Driving, iron play, chipping and putting, and today everything came together.”
Simpson had an eagle, nine birdies and his lone blemish at the par-3 17th. On that hole, he stewed over what to hit, decided on a sand wedge, then saw it hit on the wood fronting the green, bounce to the back and then roll cruelly into the water.
“It wasn’t a mistake,” Simpson said. “Just the wrong club.”
The subsequent double-bogey cost him a shot at the course record, but he still finished five holes ahead of 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, Patrick Cantlay and Danny Lee, who are at 10-under-par 134.
Chesson Hadley, Charles Howell III and Alex Noren are another shot back at 135. Last week’s winner at the Wells Fargo Championship, Jason Day, shot 67 to finish seven back along with 51-year-old Steve Stricker.
Simpson has the largest 36-hole lead in tournament history.
“I think it’s a beautiful golf course in the sense that I could go shoot a few under tomorrow because there’s birdie holes out there,” he said. “But if you’re off a little bit, you make bogeys or double-bogeys as easy as you can make birdies. I don’t think any lead is safe.”
In addition to Couples, Greg Norman (1994), Roberto Castro (2013), Martin Kaymer (2014), Day (2016) and Colt Knost (2016) have shot 63 on the Stadium Course. Couples, Norman, Kaymer and Day went on to win the tournament.
Simpson certainly found the going a lot easier than several other name players, who hovered around the cut. Tiger Woods barely made it at 143, 1 under par, as both Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas dropped to that number late in the day to keep it from moving to 142 and sending Woods home for the weekend.
The top 70 and ties make it to the weekend, and Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson are among those who did not survive. McIlroy was in position to do so until he knocked it in the water at the 17th, leading to a double-bogey.
All of that made what Simpson was doing that much more impressive.
“We were talking about it throughout the round, all three of us,” said Spieth, who played with Thomas and McIlroy. “We were like, man, I hope he shoots 59. We were hoping for it. And at the same time we’re saying, if he shoots 59, can you imagine how hard the setup’s going to be tomorrow?
“I heard he kind of got lucky and unlucky on 17, to draw back, but what an amazing round it was. 15 under through two rounds, any two rounds out of four that you can get to 15 under adding together is incredible, let alone the first 36.”
Simpson’s struggles at the 17th boiled down to being unsure of about hitting a pitching wedge or sand wedge from 140 yards. He went with the sand wedge and saw it come up short.
“We always try to land it 12 [yards] on the green there, and I was in between clubs and tried to smash a sand wedge and blocked it a little bit,” Simpson said. “It was unfortunate, to be honest. I felt pretty good on the tee. It’s a bummer, but I wanted to play 18 pretty solid, just to end the day well, and I think I did that.”