Tiger, Spieth match 65s, but 11 behind Simpson

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods shot his lowest round of the year, a 7-under-par 65 at TPC Sawgrass that had the early Saturday morning crowd buzzing as he climbed the Players Championship leaderboard.

It was also the lowest score in Woods’ 66 career trips around the Stadium course, where he won in 2001 and 2013. His previous best scores were 66s in 2000 and 2001 — also during the third round.

Jordan Spieth, playing a few groups before Woods, made six birdies — and a bogey — on the back nine to match Woods’ 65.

Both players, who made the cut on the number Friday at 1 under, finished their rounds Saturday at 8-under 208. They will be paired together during Sunday’s final round.

Woods and Spieth were in the clubhouse tied for eighth two hours before leader Webb Simpson teed off on No. 1 on Saturday. When the day was complete, the two were still tied for eighth — 11 strokes behind Simpson, who shot a 4-under 68.

“I finally got off to a good start,” said Woods, who opened the tournament with rounds of 72-71. “I birdied the first couple of holes, and I just kept it rolling from there. I hit a lot of good shots today. It was nice to see a few putts go in.

“Overall, the whole day, I hit a lot of quality shots, and 65 was probably as high as I could have shot, which was kind of nice.”

Woods has spent the past two weeks struggling to find his putting touch and unable to give himself enough birdie opportunities.

On Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship, he played a birdie-free round for just the 11th time in his PGA Tour career. Through Friday at Sawgrass, he had an eagle and just four birdies.

But Woods birdied four of the first five holes en route to a 30 — his lowest score ever on the front side at TPC Sawgrass and one off the course record. He added two more birdies, at the 11th and 12th holes, then made his first bogey at the par-4 14th when he missed the green and could not hit his pitch close.

Another opportunity passed at the par-5 16th, where Woods had just 225 yards to the pin but was between clubs and ended up hooking a 4-iron short in a bunker. He blasted to 8 feet but couldn’t convert.

“He’s driving it really nicely,” said Mackenzie Hughes, who played with Woods for the first time and shot 68. “He’s got control, the shape, hit some nice little cuts, a couple nice little draws. He just kind of had control of his golf ball. Obviously his putting kind of speaks for itself, but in that 10- to 20-foot range, he’s just so solid, and he rolled in some really nice putts today.”

Hughes, 27, said he grew up watching and idolizing Woods, and it was a thrill to be paired with him.

“I know it’s 90 degrees,” Hughes said. “But I can assure you, for me it was goosebumps and shivers out there hearing all the noise and playing with him.”

Woods hit 11 of 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens and needed just 27 putts.

Spieth did his damage on the back nine, playing it in 31 strokes, including birdies at the final three holes.

And it was welcome, given his struggles here of late and this year in general. Spieth had missed the cut in his previous three Players Championships and has struggled to get much going this year, especially on the greens.

“I think I was perfect inside of 12, 15 … 10 to 15 feet today, and anywhere inside, which was probably the first time this year that’s been the case,” Spieth said. “I started to feel really comfortable in my setup. … This was really solid today with the putter inside 15 feet, and that just makes you more comfortable. It leads into the rest of the game.

“I actually drove the ball unbelievably well the first two days, and I hit my driver really poorly today and shot 7-under. So it just shows you where it actually matters, and that’s on the greens.”

Spieth hit 14 of 18 greens and needed just 24 putts.

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