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Xander Schauffele seizes Players lead after Clark’s gaffe

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Wyndham Clark had just regained a share of the third-round lead at the 50th Players Championship on Saturday when Xander Schauffele missed a long birdie putt on the par-5 16th, the start of one of the most famous finishing stretches in golf.

After seizing momentum, Clark walked to the tee box at the par-3 17th hole and gazed at the thousands of fans surrounding the iconic island green. The hole was only 123 yards away, but it might as well have been a mile with tension building before his white-knuckled shot.

Just before Clark put his ball on a tee, his caddie, John Ellis, told him not to take a full swing with a sand wedge. Ellis was afraid that if the reigning U.S. Open champion nuked the wedge, his ball might end up on top of the green, leaving him a tricky putt back down the hill and toward the water.

Clark took a couple of practice swings and pulled his wedge back. He chunked the shot and his ball never had a chance to reach the green, landing 15 to 20 yards short in the water.

“As I was over the ball I kind of got to the top and I was like, ‘Take a little off,’ and then I just kind of [decelerated] and chunked it,” Clark said. “It wasn’t really a lack of focus or anything. It just was honestly a poor swing.”

That mistake helped Schauffele erase Clark’s 4-stroke advantage after 36 holes and take a 1-stroke lead over him heading into Sunday’s final round. Schauffele carded a bogey-free, 7-under 65. He caught Clark on No. 12 and then took a 1-stroke lead with a 58-foot birdie on the par-4 14th.

Reigning Open Championship winner Brian Harman is 2 strokes behind at 15 under after posting an 8-under 64 on Saturday. After carding his only bogey on the par-5 ninth hole — which required the lefty to hit a right-handed shot — Harman had a 5-under 31 on the back nine. Maverick McNealy and Matt Fitzpatrick are 4 strokes back at 13 under.

World No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler, who is attempting to become the first back-to-back winner in Players Championship history, stayed in the hunt by posting birdies on four of his last five holes. He is 5 strokes behind at 12 under, along with Sahith Theegala.

“I wouldn’t say I’m out of the tournament,” Scheffler said. “I’m definitely on the outside looking in, but a hot day tomorrow could go a long way.”

Schauffele, ranked sixth in the world, is one of the most talented golfers in the world without a major championship victory. He won’t be able to win one at TPC Sawgrass on Sunday, but he can capture the “fifth major” and the $4.5 million winner’s purse, the richest in men’s professional golf.

It’s the seventh time in Schauffele’s career that he led or co-led a tournament after 54 holes. He won twice in the previous six tries, at the Genesis Scottish Open and Travelers Championship in 2022. Schauffele said he knows it might take another low number on Sunday to win again.

“Probably pretty similar, to be honest,” Schauffele said. “I’m going to go to the range right now and try and clean up some of those missed fairways on the back nine. When you hit a lot of fairways out here you can get some scoring clubs in your hand, and with the greens being receptive, you can fire at some pins. It could be low tomorrow, but for the most part I’m going to try and enjoy myself and stay in my lane.”

After posting consecutive 65s to start the tournament, Clark knows he’ll have to clean things up in the final round, including his indecisiveness on the 17th hole.

As poor as Clark’s first swing on the 17th was on Saturday, his second one was nearly perfect. Instead of taking his third shot from the drop area, he hit again from the tees. Clark asked his caddie if he should hit from the drop area, but Ellis told him he didn’t like the angle and the shot was too close.

“It was kind of a no-brainer to hit from there,” Ellis said. “He asked me, and I said, ‘No, we’re going to hit it from right here,’ so easy choice.”

Clark knocked his ball to 6½ feet. He made the putt for bogey. Schauffele and Clark both made par on the difficult 18th, leaving Schauffele with the advantage heading into Sunday.

“It’s unfortunate on a hole that’s so iconic and has a bunch of trouble to have kind of your worst swing of the day,” Clark said. “But yeah, I followed it with a great swing and a great putt. I’m in the final group tomorrow, which is huge.

“I’m hoping that’s a huge point in the tournament and we look back after tomorrow and look at that hole and say, ‘Hey, that was maybe the shot and the putt that meant it all.'”

This story originally appeared on ESPN

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