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Westwood leads at Sawgrass, gets another shot at DeChambeau

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Lee Westwood, of England, smiles after making a birdie putt on the 16th hole during the third round of The Players Championship golf tournament Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – One week later, the two leading characters and the roles they play are still the same.

Only the stage — and the stakes — have changed.

Lee Westwood went from surprise to delight when his tee shot to the island green on the par-3 17th stayed on the top ridge, and then he trickled in a 25-foot birdie putt that carried him to a 4-under 68 on Saturday at The Players Championship.

Bryson DeChambeau pumped his powerful arms twice when he made a 15-foot par putt on the 18th hole, giving him a 67 and leaving him two shots behind and in the final group with Westwood.

That's how it was last week at Bay Hill, when DeChambeau came from one shot behind to beat Westwood with a par on the final hole at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

“It's like Round 2, the rematch,” Westwood said.

Westwood, who turns 48 next month, no longer has to go up a few classes to face DeChambeau, golf's fearsome heavyweight. Unlike Bay Hill, the TPC Sawgrass is all about position, not power.

Then again, DeChambeau is playing well enough for any style of golf course.

“I suppose if you sat Bryson down here and you asked him which golf course would suit him more, he’d probably say Bay Hill,” Westwood said. “You can open your shoulders a little bit more around Bay Hill than you can around here. This place is a little bit more strategic. But credit to Bryson. You wouldn’t associate this golf course with his style of play, and he’s up there. It shows he can adapt his game.”

It was the first time the same two players were in the final group in consecutive PGA Tour events in more than 14 years, with one big difference. This one is separated by seven days. Vijay Singh and Adam Scott faced off nine weeks apart — the season-ending Tour Championship in 2006 and the season-opening Mercedes Championship at Kapalua.

Westwood capped off his round with a 5-foot par putt, extending his streak to 44 holes without a bogey, and he's dropped only two shots this week on a Stadium Course where one swing can lead to a big number.

Westwood was at 13-under 203.

“He’s making a lot of amazing putts, too,” DeChambeau said. “That’s what it takes to win golf tournaments.”

Westwood has 41 victories around the world — at least one on every major tour of the International Federation of PGA Tours — and knows better than to get caught up with DeChambeau, especially here.

He had the 54-hole lead at The Players in 2010 when 14 players were separated by five shots going into the final round, and Tim Clark rallied from three behind to win.

Among those three back going into Sunday was Justin Thomas, who started with four straight birdies and capped off his 64 with a 5-iron that stopped inches away from the hole on the par-5 16th for a tap-in eagle.

Doug Ghim, who is making his debut in The Players, also was three behind. He was among seven players who had at least a share of the lead at one point Saturday and was motoring along until one costly swing on the easiest hole, the par-5 16th. He came up well short in a bunker under a tree, tried to blast low under the limbs and caught the rough and wound up with his lone bogey.

Paul Casey had six birdies and an eagle to offset his mistakes in a 67, leaving him four shots behind with Jon Rahm (67). Also four shots behind was Brian Harman, who began his day by holing a wedge for eagle and shot 69.

Sergio Garcia was five shots behind and still can’t handle the short putts, including a 4-footer for birdie that missed badly on the low side at the 17th. He had to settle for a 72.

DeChambeau can't blast away at Sawgrass because of the bending tree-lined fairways and water hazards. But his power still comes in handy. With his tee shot buried in deep rough right of the 18th fairway, some 210 yards away, he ripped an 8-iron to just short of the green and set up his chance at par.

He acted more excited aboutt that par than his six birdies.

“You've got to make those to win tournaments,” he said. “I didn't want to leave a sour taste in my mouth.”

Westwood said this would be the biggest win of his career, and while there were times he chose not to play as a European Tour member, there is no denying the strength of the field — 48 of the top 50 players — and the nature of a Sawgrass course where fortunes can change with a single swing.

First prize is worth $2.7 million.

For DeChambeau, it's a chance to stamp himself as the favorite as the Masters nears, if he's not already. He already has two victories this season. He also knows from recent experience — seven days ago — that it might not be easy the way Westwood is playing.

“Mr. Consistency,” DeChambeau called him. “I mean, his driving is impeccable, his iron play is impeccable and he makes putts when he needs to. Fortunately for me last week I was able to get the job done, and I think tomorrow is going to be an incredible battle.”