PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Anirban Lahiri showed up at TPC Sawgrass in darkness Sunday morning wearing four layers of clothes — with a fifth layer just in case — to cope with near freezing temperatures he never experienced growing up in Bangalore, India.
He walked off the course in evening darkness with a 1-shot lead in the Players Championship and still a long way to go for a career-changing victory.
For him and everyone else still playing, this week has been unlike any other.
The longest week at the Players moved closer to a conclusion without much clarity amid the ever-changing names in the chase. Sixteen players were within 4 shots of the lead, and the third round wasn’t even over.
Tom Hoge and Harold Varner III each birdied their last hole at the par-5 ninth before darkness suspended play. That pulled them within a shot of Lahiri, who moments earlier two-putted for birdie from 30 feet on the 11th hole to reach 9 under par.
Lahiri and Hoge were among those who didn’t even start the second round until Sunday morning because of rain that saturated the Stadium Course earlier in the week. They dodged the worst of the wind, and instead were greeted by 35-degree temperatures.
“I was a bit scared how cold it was going to be. I’m not used to playing temperatures sub-40, and I did struggle a little bit when I came out,” Lahiri said. “But it was nice to just get back into a good process and a good rhythm. Made a lot of good swings today, just kept it in front of me, made good decisions. Yeah, I mean, it was a great day.”
Right behind was Sam Burns, whose heroics toward the end of the second round Sunday — a 75-foot eagle putt on the 16th and an 18-foot par putt on the last hole — gave him a 3-under 69 and a share of the 36-hole lead with Hoge (71).
One more day, and still a long way to go.
Hoge opened with a 66 on Thursday with Lahiri a shot behind. They were among 27 players who went two days before hitting another shot that counted.
“I honestly felt I hadn’t played golf in a year,” said Tommy Fleetwood, who was at 5 under through nine holes and still very much in the mix.
The third round was to finish Monday morning, followed by the final round in pursuit of the $3.6 million payoff to the winner, along with three-year exemptions to the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship.
The Pete Dye design is renowned for not favoring any one style of play, and that much was evident going into the final day of this marathon finish.
None of the leading six players, all separated by 2 shots, has ever won a major.
Paul Casey has the most experience in pressure situations with his Ryder Cup experience. He was 2 shots behind and facing a 5-foot par putt on No. 10 as he tries to extend his amazing streak without a bogey at Sawgrass to 43 holes.
Casey began the championship with a triple bogey.
Lahiri and Varner, who won in Saudi Arabia a month ago, have never won on the PGA Tour. Hoge collected his first win last month at Pebble Beach. Burns has won twice in the past year and is part of the burgeoning class of young American stars.
Also at 7 under was Sebastian Munoz of Colombia with one PGA Tour title.
With so much golf left, possibilities are endless.
The 16 players within 4 shots of the lead included the resurgent former British Open champion Francesco Molinari and his successor holding the claret jug, Shane Lowry, whose round was highlighted by an ace to a front pin on the island-green 17th.
Lowry had himself a day on one of the most famous holes in golf. He played twice and needed only three shots, having made a 25-foot birdie in the second round earlier in the morning.
“Not only that, it put me back in the tournament somewhat,” said Lowry, who was 4 shots behind and had four holes left in the third round. “So it was amazing.”
Doug Ghim, at 6 under par, was holding his own despite getting the short end. He was the only player among the top 15 after 36 holes who had the late-early start times and faced the worst of the fickle weather, mainly the 35 mph wind on Saturday.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of talk of the waves. And yeah, there’s a big difference,” Varner said. “But that’s not my problem. I didn’t make the tee times.”
Lahiri, the 34-year-old son of an army doctor, prepared Saturday afternoon by going to the back of the range and trying on warm clothes to see how many layers he could handle and keep his mobility. He found the right combination.
Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler can count themselves among the fortunate. They finished the second round Saturday at 2-over 146 and were on the verge of missing the cut with the final two groups finishing up the round.
And then Scott Piercy, who appeared safe at 2 under par, hit two shots into the water on the island-green 17th and made a quadruple-bogey 7 that knocked him to 2 over. Piercy bogeyed the 18th and wound up missing the cut.
Others didn’t get off so easy. The strongest field of the year won’t include three of the top 10 players in the world — Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele.