PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. >> Sergio Garcia had one of those stretches where it felt like every putt was going to drop. He needed every one of them Friday for a 7-under 65 to match his best score on the TPC Sawgrass and take a one-shot lead over Tiger Woods among early starters at The Players Championship.
Garcia didn’t miss a fairway and putted for birdie on every hole on the back nine and wasn’t gaining any ground. That changed on the front nine when he made seven straight putts — five of them from about 15 feet or longer — to race by Woods and into the lead.
“When you start going like that, obviously it feels great,” said Garcia, who was at 11-under 133. “Everything seems kind of clearer in your head. You seem to see the break. You seem to feel like everything is a little bit easier, a little bit smoother, and you hit the putt and it manages to go in.
“If it was easy, we would have plenty of those, but it’s not,” he said. “Enjoy them while you have them.”
Woods looks like he’s having a good time on the course that has vexed him more than any other on the PGA Tour, and he could be the greater threat on the weekend. Already a three-time winner this year on tour, Woods has rarely put himself in trouble and had his second straight 67.
Woods was at 134, his best 36-hole total by six shots at this tournament, including the year he won.
He tied for the lead with a 5-wood into 20 feet for eagle on the par-5 second hole, and then took the lead alone with a short birdie on the fourth. But it didn’t last long. Garcia, playing in the group ahead of him, ran off five straight birdies, finishing that stretch with a 20-foot putt on No. 5 and a 25-footer on No. 6.
Woods and Garcia have played together on big stages — Bethpage Black, Royal Liverpool — with a big edge for Woods. They had to wait to see if they would be in the final group on Saturday with half the field still on the course.
Then again, Sawgrass tends to turn nasty in the afternoon as the greens get firmer and shots tend to release instead of settling close to the hole. Among those who played late was Roberto Castro, who opened with a 63 and already had three bogeys in his second round.
Woods again handled the par 5s and now has played them in 8-under for the week, including his eagle. What impressed him more was his overall game. He was asked if there was any part of his game that made him unhappy.
“No, I’m pretty pleased with where it’s at right now,” Woods replied.
The reporter looked at him, waiting for more. Woods looked back and finally added with a grin, “Did I answer that?”
Garcia and Woods first were linked when the Spaniard was 19 and gave Woods all he could handle at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship. They were paired in the final round of the 2002 U.S. Open and 2006 British Open, both won by Woods.
If they play together Saturday, Garcia said he wouldn’t see it as anything but another round of golf.
“I don’t have to measure myself against anybody,” Garcia said. “I know what I want to try to do, and any given day I can shoot a round like this and any other day he can shoot a good round and beat me. Like we always say, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So there are going to be good days and not so good days, so just got to enjoy the good ones as much as possible.”
Lee Westwood chipped in from 100 feet for eagle on the 11th hole and was atop the leaderboard until making pars on his last eight holes. He had a 66 and was two shots behind, along with Kevin Chappell who had a 66.
Ryan Palmer, who learned Thursday night that one of his best friends died in a car accident in San Antonio, had two eagles in a round of 69 and was three shots behind. Defending champion Matt Kuchar birdied three of his last four holes for a 66 and was at 7-under 137.
Woods won The Players in 2001, highlighted by that 60-foot putt on the island green described by NBC Sports analyst Gary Koch as “better than most.” But he has only seriously contended twice, and he has failed to crack the top 20 eight times in 15 appearances.
Woods is accentuating only the positive.
“Even though I haven’t played well in the past, I’ve still won here,” he said. “Actually, I’ve won here twice, technically.”
He was referring to the U.S. Amateur in 1994, the first of his three straight titles.
“I haven’t played my best here, but I’ve always felt that courses, even though it’s been a while I’ve won on them, I’ve still won on them,” Woods said. “I know how to get around this golf course. This course, more than most, really tests every facet of your game. You have to drive the ball well. You have to hit your irons in the correct spots, and if you don’t hit your irons in the correct spots, you’re going to have some really funky up-and-downs.
“It’s trying to manage the ball in the correct spots, and I’ve done that the first two days.”
Woods twice made bogey, both times missing the fairway to the right on No. 14 and No. 7. He finished with a 20-foot birdie putt.
Garcia, for two hours, looked like he couldn’t miss.
His streak began with a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-5 second. He stuffed his tee shot into 6 feet on the third, and hit wedge to 8 feet on the fourth. He followed that with his two long birdie putts, made a putt just inside 15 feet for par on the seventh and ended his big run with the 40-footer on No. 8.
Garcia also is a past champion, winning a playoff in 2008.
“Fortunately for me, I’ve managed to play quite decent on this golf course,” Garcia said. “So any good thing that you can get in your head, it’s obviously positive and those kind of things always help. But it’s a different year. We’ll see if we can manage to do something similar.”