THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Paul Goydos would love to say he saw this coming, but he’s too honest.
He had never broken 70 in nine previous appearances at The Players Championship, yet a 2-under 70 on Saturday made him the only player to break par all three days on the TPC Sawgrass and gave him a one-shot lead over Kenny Perry.
Since his last victory 16 months ago on the PGA Tour — and only the second of his career — he has yet to crack the top 20. But after a birdie on the island-green 17th and a hybrid out of the trees to make par on the final hole, he wound up with a 54-hole lead for the first time in his career.
"But I've only been on tour 16 years," Goydos deadpanned. "I guess I was due."
This is the leader at the richest event on the PGA Tour -- a 43-year-old former substitute teacher who is raising two teenager daughters. He has no endorsement deal, so he bought a Long Beach State baseball cap last week in an airport with the nickname "Dirtbags" on the bill. Even in hot weather, he keeps his shirt buttoned to the top because "I have no shoulders."
Was he shocked to be holding a one-shot lead?
"Pretty much," Goydos said. "You have to go by the track record, and on this golf course, mine stinks."
Perhaps it is with such self-deprecating humour that Goydos appeared so immune to the mounting pressure and a course that continued to get tougher in hot, blustery conditions. He answered every bogey with a birdie, none bigger than a wedge just inside 10 feet on the island-green 17th and a birdie for the outright lead.
He was at 7-under 209, the highest score to lead on the Stadium Course since David Duval was at 212 in 1999.
Perry saved par with a nifty wedge on the 18th hole for a 72 that put him at 210 and in the final group Sunday, a huge opportunity in his quest to make the Ryder Cup team in his home state of Kentucky.
Calgary's Stephen Ames shot 2-over 74 and fell into a tie for 14th at even-par 216. Mike Weir of Bright's Grove, Ont., struggled to a round of 3-over 75 and was tied for 53rd at 6-over 222.
Sergio Garcia hit the ball as well as anyone for the second straight day, and got nothing in return.
Garcia was tied for the lead standing on the 17th tee, but he three-putted from just outside 10 feet, then hit into the rough on the 18th and closed with another bogey for a 73, leaving him three shots behind.
Through three rounds, Goydos has taken 78 putts, 18 fewer than Garcia.
"I'm a little bit disappointed because I feel like the last two days, I shot the highest score I could shoot," Garcia said. "And I still have a chance. With everything that has happened, I'm still there."
The numbers are shrinking, with only 13 players remaining under par, just three of those with a major to their credit.
Getting the most attention was Phil Mickelson, trying to become the first repeat champion in the 35-year history of this tournament. He was making a move up the leaderboard until he knocked his tee shot into the water on the 14th and took double bogey. He still wound up with a 71 and was in the group at 2-under 214, five shots behind and very much in the game.
Even Goydos would concede that.
"I'm pretty sure Mickelson is not going, 'Well, I'm playing for second,"' Goydos said.
Goydos played with Garcia and was reminded why he hasn't won but two times in his career. One of those was at Bay Hill in 1996, and the running joke is that his photo among all the other past champions looks like Wal-Mart employee of the month.
"Sergio played pretty well," Goydos said. "I'm sure he was looking at me and just wanting to throw up. He's an impressive golfer. On any given day ... you know, I beat him today. The Futures market, you decide who you want to take."
But it all starts with Goydos, a self-described journeyman who has as much perspective, honesty and dry humour as anyone around.
His most recent victory was the 2007 Sony Open, and Goydos noted that Tiger Woods had won nearly 60 times between his two victories. When he next saw Woods, he pleaded with him to quickly win 60 more times so Goydos wouldn't have to wait another 11 years.
Goydos has played 30 times since that victory in Hawaii, and his best finish has been a tie for 25.
That was a week ago.
"I'm not proud of that fact, but it's not through lack of effort," he said. "I think I'm a better player than I've ever been. That said, so is everybody else who plays out here, which is the problem."
He has been around long enough to know how much can change over the final 18 holes, especially on this course with a tenuous lead.
Perry, 47, made the only birdie among 74 players on the 14th hole and had 14 pars, perhaps the most meaningful one on the 18th. After driving into the rough and laying up short, he hit sand wedge to 10 feet and made the putt to get into the last group.
"There's no other game plan -- survival," Perry said.
So many others couldn't last.
Fred Couples didn't made a birdie until the 11th hole and shot 77, taking himself out of the tournament. Ernie Els was 4 over through his first four holes and played hard to return a 74, but he was still eight shots behind.
Anthony Kim appeared to finally run out of gas after winning the Wachovia Championship last week. He was two shots out of the lead until running off four straight bogeys, then hitting into the water on the final two holes for a triple bogey-double bogey finish and a 79.
Goydos knocked in a pair of 18-foot birdie putts early in his round -- from about the same distance that Garcia missed all day -- but was particularly impressive following his mistakes. A three-putt bogey on the seventh was followed by a 5-foot birdie on the 219-yard eight. A bogey with a wedge in his hand on the ninth was followed by a 20-foot birdie on the 10th.
No birdie was bigger than the one on No. 17 because it gave him the lead.
Not many saw that coming.