Hell of a job now for Hal

US Players Championship: Sutton succumbs to water torture of the 17th as prowling Tiger waits to pounce
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The Independent Online

If there is an air of inevitability about the way Tiger Woods wins certain tournaments, like last Sunday's Bay Hill Invitational, it is absent from the US Players' Championship. That is partly due to the strength of the field and the number of veteran grinders like Hal Sutton at the top of the leaderboard, and partly due to the 17th hole. No matter if it is Sutton, Woods or anybody else holding the lead this evening, nothing will be certain until they have survived the TPC of Sawgrass's signature hole.

According to the scorecard, the par-three measures 137 yards but the premium on hitting the green is absolute. Failure to do so means being unable to play the ball as it lies without using diving equipment. If sand or the sort of tangly rough that surrounds the rest of the course lay between the tee and the green it would not exercise the nervous system quite so much.

Just occasionally the reward does outweigh the risk and yesterday Paul Azinger holed his nine-iron for an ace. But not even Woods is immune from disaster and he found the water on Thursday. "You have to be totally committed to the shot and I wasn't," he said.

At the third round yesterday Sutton arrived at the hole with a four-stroke lead. His tee shot bounced once at the back of the island green and into the water. His third from the drop zone spun back against the collar of rough and he took three putts to get down for a triple-bogey six. His comfortable cushion having been suddenly punctured, Sutton now takes just a one-stroke lead over the world No 1 into the final round of golf's richest tournament - $1.08m (£675,000) to the winner - and most important event outside the majors.

Sutton's third 69 took him to nine under but Woods made a commanding move with a 66, matching the best of the day by Jeff Sluman and Robert Damron. It was, remarkably, the first time that Woods had broken 70 around the course in 15 attempts. "I knew the conditions were benign and I needed to shoot something very good," Woods said.

If there is anyone who takes Woods' winning streak as a personal challenge it is Sutton, a fierce competitor who was America's best player at last year's Ryder Cup. "This is an intimidating golf course and I can only take care of myself, not what Tiger does," he said.

Another 41-year-old, Tom Lehman, is three behind Woods after a 72, and would have been right in contention but for a double-bogey six at the 18th, a reminder that the closing hole is actually ranked the hardest on the course and one of the hardest on the whole US Tour.

Woods, attempting to win for the fourth time in seven events this year, started the third round four behind Sutton and made an ominous start. Without the winds of the first two days, conditions were perfect and he birdied four of the first six holes. It could have been even better, his eagle attempt at the second just missing, but then he holed an outrageous putt at the sixth when he let the ball die over a ridge and then turn into the hole.

He got within one stroke of Sutton but the half-way leader responded in kind with the hottest of putters. His five birdies in an outward 31 included two from over 20 feet and another from the fringe.

Sutton's lead at the turn was six, as Woods missed a short par-putt at the tenth, having done the hard part by playing an exquisite parachute recovery. Annoyed, perhaps, Woods played a fairway bunker shot from 202 yards to four feet to set-up an eagle at the 11th.

Sutton won the Players in 1983 in the second year the tournament was played at a venue designed by Pete Dye but created in the imagination by the then US Tour commissioner Deane Beman. The idea was to create a course so tough the punters would queue up for 18 holes of humiliation. It worked for Carnoustie. There has not been a spare tee-time since the Open.

The course has matured over the years, much like Sutton, now a contented father of three. "They like to get this course at the edge of greatness," Sutton said. "I think it is a great test. You have to be smart enough to know when to hit the accelerator and when to hit the brake. It's easy constantly to do one or the other but here you have to switch between offence and defence."

David Duval was the only player to master the venue a year ago but the world No 2 counted out his chances after finishing at two over despite a bogey-free 70. The world No 3, Colin Montgomerie, started at level par but was unable to progress as he would have liked until he birdied the last two holes for a 70. His tee shot at the 17th finished four feet away and then he holed from 20 feet at the last.

Montgomerie said: "Today was as easy as this course plays and I didn't take advantage." He missed the fairway at the three par-fives which are reachable, failing to make birdie at any of them, and had two three-putt bogeys. "The game was OK. The two-three finish was a bonus. You'd take a three-four finish and run, so that evened things up."

Collated totals after the third round of the Players Championship at TPC at Sawgrass, Ponde Vedra Beach, Florida (US unless stated, par 72):

207 H Sutton 69 69 69 208 T Woods 71 71 66 211 T Lehman 71 68 72 212 J Sluman 75 71 66 213 C Parry (Aus) 70 74 69, L Janzen 70 73 70 214 R Damron 78 70 66, P Azinger 75 69 70, C Montgomerie (GB) 75 69 70, E Els (SA) 73 69 72, S Dunlap 73 70 71 215 F Funk 74 73 68, G Chalmers (Aus) 71 75 69, L Mattiace 70 72 73 216 J Leonard 71 76 69, J Maggert 77 68 71, S Hoch 73 75 68, J Carter 73 71 72 217 S Verplank 75 74 68, S Cink 75 73 69, K Perry 70 77 70, C Perry 76 70 71, B Mayfair 70 74 73, N Price (Zim) 73 71 73 218 S Pate 76 74 68, D Duval 75 73 70, M Brooks 72 75 71 219 M O'Meara 75 74 70, G Kraft 77 72 70, H Frazar 77 70 72, G Norman (Aus) 75 71 73, C Franco (Par) 73 73 73, C Pavin 72 73 74, S Ames (Tri) 72 72 75, J Furyk 72 72 75, , B Fabel 70 74 75, O Uresti 71 68 80 220 R Black 74 76 70, I Woosnam (GB) 76 74 70, S Appleby (Aus) 72 77 71, JP Hayes 73 76 71, D Sutherland 75 74 71, W Austin 77 72 71, F Lickliter 75 74 71, D Love 73 75 72, N Ozaki (Jap) 70 77 73, S Gump 72 75 73 221 S Lowery 76 74 71, O Browne 77 73 71, R Cochran 77 73 71, P Lawrie (GB) 76 74 71, D Toms 77 72 72, T Bjorn (Den) 76 73 72, E Toledo (Mex) 75 74 72, B Chamblee 74 74 73, K Triplett 75 72 74, B Langer (Ger) 70 76 75, K Wentworth 74 72 75, R Allenby (Aus) 73 71 77 222 L Westwood (GB) 77 73 72, S Jones 80 70 72, S Flesch 79 71 72, J Kelly 79 70 73, V Singh (Fij) 75 73 74, B Watts 77 71 74, C Barlow 71 76 75, D Barron 72 74 76, S McCarron 78 67 77, F Allem (SA) 75 65 82 223 F Couples 77 73 73 224 J Daly 77 73 74, N Henke 78 70 76, T Kite 75 72 77 225 C Riley 73 77 75, D Forsman 77 73 75, N Faldo (GB) 73 76 76, D Frost (SA) 78 69 78 226 B Faxon 79 71 76, B Glasson 74 72 80, T Tryba 75 71 80