Golf: Dogged Duval stalks his destiny

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The Independent Online
THE PLAYERS' Championship is not quite a major, but it tends to be won by major champions. David Duval is not yet among that distinguished body of golfers but a victory today in the pounds 3m tournament in his home town would bring the 27-year-old closer to his ultimate goal of winning a big one, as well as lifting the No 1 crown off Tiger Woods.

With virtually all the leading players populating the leaderboard at the half-way stage at the TPC here, Duval quickly moved to the top of it in the third round. Having seen the cream rise for two days, a strong breeze did its best to blow it away. Joe Ozaki, who was leading after 36 holes for the second year, took a double bogey at the first as he went to the turn in 41, while Davis Love started with a seven.

Disasters elsewhere were plentiful. Corey Pavin was 11 over for an eight- hole stretch, while Nick Faldo scored an 83. "I hate to think what speed the greens are," said the Englishman. "You have to land the ball on them perfectly. I wasn't playing well enough to do that, but someone will."

That person appeared to be Duval as he birdied the second and the fourth to move into a five-stroke lead. However, he showed he was not immune from chaos as he dropped shots at the fifth, seventh, ninth and 10th, by which time Phil Mickelson had reached the same four-under mark, one ahead of the early clubhouse leader, Skip Kendall. Woods was a further shot behind.

The whole set up at Sawgrass, home of the US PGA Tour, is of the highest quality. That is especially true of Pete Dye's course compared to, say, the tame layout at La Costa for the World Matchplay.

Even on their practice rounds on Tuesday players noticed the greens were showing signs of turning brown. "They don't have to trick this golf course up," said Bruce Lietzke. "The greens look like they are dying. I have a problem with putting the health of the greens in peril for people who want to play the course for the rest of the year."

One of those is Duval, and the world No 2 denied he had any home advantage since the course only plays this hard for this week. The quietly spoken American has just taken three weeks off but the man who shot 59 to win earlier this year slipped straight back into such commanding form that, asked for a winning score, Lee Westwood said simply: "One less than Duval."

Westwood, after a putting lesson from Darren Clarke, who suggested he improve his rhythm by practising with his eyes closed, admitted he has a headache every time he walks off this course. He did so yesterday with a 75, which keeps him in the hunt at one over, while Colin Montgomerie managed to reach two under.

Monty has not always distinguished himself in the wind but he battled back from a front nine of 39 with birdies at the 12th and 13th. The most quoted stat of the week has been that no one has made the Players' Championship their first win on the US tour.

Should Europe's No1 break that trend, it would be a sweet victory. Perhaps then he would receive the respect he deserves here and not have to deal with incidents such as that on Friday when a clown masquerading as a local TV reporter appeared to set out deliberately to provoke the Scot as he answered questions after his round.

Having made the cut for only the second time this year, both Faldo and Clarke were relishing the prospect of two more rounds. Clarke, whose second round 70 was seven better than his opening effort, had expressed the hope that he had "turned the corner", but what he walked into was the strong gust of a cool northerly wind.

Faldo's 83 equalled his worst on the US tour, and Clarke shot a 79, including a six at the short 17th. Faldo, who had led the tournament at four under after nine holes on Thursday, finished at 13 over par. His playing partner was Tom Watson. Between them they have had 14 major championships, but they were a combined 18 over for the day.

"Everything was a little out and on a course like this you have no chance," said Faldo, who had two double bogeys in a back nine of 45. "I wish there wasn't a tomorrow, I wish I could have a day off."