Big names miss the cut, everyone's chasing Wyndham Clark

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Might Scottie Scheffler’s neck determine whether or not the PGA Tour has another runaway winner in one of its high-profile signature events?

Scheffler, the world No. 1 golfer, is attempting to become the first back-to-back winner of The Players Championship at the 50th edition of the tour’s flagship event at TPC Sawgrass this week. But his hopes hit a bump Friday when he felt pain in his neck on the second hole of his round.

Scheffler asked a PGA Tour official for Biofreeze, a pain reliever, and then received a massage from a physical therapist on holes 14 and 16.

Scheffler gutted through a 3-under 69 for a 36-hole total of 8 under, which kept him in contention, albeit in a tie for sixth and 6 strokes back of reigning U.S. Open winner Wyndham Clark and 2 behind Xander Schauffele and Canada’s Nick Taylor.

Clark, who was ranked 163rd in the world at the start of 2023, is looking for his fourth victory in the past 10 months. After capturing his first PGA Tour victory at the Wells Fargo Championship in May, he added victories at the U.S. Open in June and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February.

Clark seems poised to add another one. His 4-stroke lead ties Jason Day (2016) for the second-largest in Players Championship history. Webb Simpson led by 5 at the halfway point in 2018. He was up 7 strokes after 54 holes and won by 4.

While Schauffele and Taylor applied pressure to Clark on Friday, Scheffler possesses the pedigree and nerves to chase him down, and the former Masters champion was playing the best golf in the world coming into the week.

“All you’re trying to do is put some pressure on someone,” Schauffele said. “He’s been playing incredible golf for quite a few months now, and he’s got the power and precision and he’s very confident right now. So it’s important to be in that final group just to try and put some pressure on him and try and get going.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Scheffler trailed by 6 strokes or more heading into the weekend and came back to win. He was 9 strokes back after 36 holes at the 2022 WM Phoenix Open and beat Patrick Cantlay in a playoff to capture his first PGA Tour victory. At the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill three weeks later, Scheffler rallied from 8 strokes back over the final 36 holes and won by 1.

If nothing else, Clark knows the best golfer in the world is going to be chasing him over the final 36 holes. It will be the fifth time Clark held the lead at the halfway point; he won once previously, at the 2023 Wells Fargo Championship, his first PGA Tour victory.

“I have so much respect for Scottie and his game and consistency, and he really is kind of the meter right now of where you want to try to be,” Clark said. “Scottie’s always in contention. He’s pushed me to be better and it’s fun to watch him, and so I’m really trying to catch him. I really owe a lot to him [for] some of my good golf of late.”

As the tour turns

Golfweek, citing sources, reported Friday that player directors on the PGA Tour policy board might be nearing a meeting with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, possibly as early as Monday in Ponte Vedra Beach.

Golfweek said details of the meeting are being closely guarded, and it’s “still unclear if the powerful Saudi investment chief will commit to attending or cancel at the last minute.”

Five of the six player directors were competing in the Players Championship — Patrick Cantlay, Peter Malnati, Adam Scott, Webb Simpson and Jordan Spieth. Tiger Woods was the only player director who wasn’t competing this week.

On Tuesday, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan told reporters that he met with Al-Rumayyan in Saudi Arabia in January. He said talks with the PIF were “accelerating,” and that he believed forming an alliance with the Saudis, which could bring an investment worth as much as $3 billion, was the tour’s best path forward.

ESPN reported last week that a meeting between Al-Rumayyan and the player directors was the likely next step in the negotiations, according to sources.

After his round Friday, Spieth confirmed that the player directors were “being encouraged to potentially meet” with PIF officials but declined to provide specifics.

“I think there’s not a whole lot more I can say about that, but we are being encouraged, obviously, which I think is probably a good thing,” Spieth said. “The entire board should if there’s going to be any potential for a negotiation.”

Waiting for the Masters

Wyndham Clark has worked hard to be more confident, and a story he revealed Friday — that he turned down two invitations to play at Augusta National Golf Club in the past — might be the best evidence of his new swagger.

“I kind of made a little pact with myself that I wouldn’t go until I was eligible to play in the tournament,” Clark said.

By winning his first major championship at Los Angeles County Club in June, Clark earned a five-year exemption into the Masters, PGA Championship and The Open, as well as a 10-year exemption into the U.S. Open.

Clark, 30, will make his Masters debut on April 11-14. So, last week, he took a scouting trip to Augusta National Golf Club with his father and brother.

“It was a really cool trip because I went with my dad and brother, who have never been and so we went and had an awesome kind of Clark boys trip and it was very memorable,” Clark said. “It’s something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”

Who’s in and who’s out

Min Woo Lee played in the final group with Scheffler on Sunday last year (he carded a 4-over 76 and tied for sixth), but needed to get things going on the back nine Friday just to make the cut. After carding a 1-over 73 in the first round, Lee was 2 over making the turn, which was one worse than the projected cut line.

The Australian proceeded to card birdies on Nos. 10, 12, 15 and 17 to move to 2 under. He made a 60-footer for birdie on the iconic 17th. It was the second-longest putt on the island-green hole since 2003; Jhonattan Vegas made a 69 ½-footer in 2019.

“I knew I needed to make a couple birdies towards the end and made some on the back nine,” Lee said. “Just missed a short putt on 16, so 17 was real sweet.”

There were a handful of familiar names who missed the cut and won’t be around for the weekend, including Justin Thomas (1 over), Jordan Spieth (2 over), Matt Kuchar (2 over), Nick Dunlap (3 over), Will Zalatoris (4 over), Keegan Bradley (7 over) and Justin Rose (3 over).

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