Sergio Garcia took the Players Championship lead with Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood close behind after the second round as star power returned to the top of the leaderboard on Friday.
Garcia, Woods and Westwood led a scoring parade as eagles and birdies flew all around TPC Sawgrass on a steamy day in what is widely regarded as golf’s unofficial fifth major.
Garcia, the 2008 champion, fired a sizzling seven-under 65 for an 11-under total of 133 that left him one shot ahead of Woods (67), who sank an 18-foot birdie putt at his final hole, the par-five ninth.
“I hit the ball very well, hit a lot of good iron shots and gave myself a lot of good birdie opportunities,” said Garcia, who caught fire on his second nine. “I got on a great run there where I made a lot of putts in a row.”
Another shot back was Westwood (66), 26-year-old American Kevin Chappell (66) and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson (67), who eagled both par-fives on his back nine.
Roberto Castro had set the pace in the opening round by tying the course record with a nine-under 63 for a three-shot lead, but the little-known American’s advantage vanished before he even teed off in the afternoon wave.
Castro disappeared down the leaderboard after mixing one birdie with five bogeys and a double-bogey for a six-over 78 that left him eight shots off the pace.
World No. 1 Woods, rounding into top form this year with a tour-leading three victories, began the day four shots back, but gained a share of the lead at nine-under when he sank a 20-foot eagle putt on the par-five second, his 11th hole.
He surged into the lead with a birdie two holes later and was joined at 10-under by Garcia when the Spaniard capped a streak of five consecutive birdies by rolling in a 26-footer at the par-three sixth, his 15th hole of the day.
Garcia climbed to 11 under par at the par-three eighth when he drained a 40-footer for birdie.
Woods lost a stroke when he bogeyed the par-four seventh after driving into the right rough, but the 14-time major winner made the bounced back with his closing birdie.
The 2001 champion said Friday’s early starters took advantage of inviting conditions.
“It was pretty benign for the first six, seven, eight, nine holes,” Woods said about the lack of wind at the Stadium Course. “The guys this afternoon with it crusty and dry, it’s going to be a little more of a test.”
That proved to be the case as the later starters failed to challenge the target set by Garcia.
Westwood, another early starter setting off on the back nine, jump-started his round when he chipped in for eagle at the par-five 11th and birdied the next two holes.
“The golf course will toughen up, obviously,” said Westwood. “They seem to let you have a bit of a go at it over the first couple of days and then they firm it up a lot come the weekend.”
Flying the banner for the lesser-known players, Chappell’s round also included an eagle at the 11th.
Australian Marc Leishman got into the act with an unusual eagle, holing out from 172 yards with a wedge at the par-four 18th that left him with a six-under 66 for 138.
World No. 2 Rory McIlroy was also on 138, posting a 72 in the afternoon after three successive bogeys from the seventh.
Three shots behind Garcia on eight-under 136 were Americans Ryan Palmer (69) and Casey Wittenberg (69), and David Lingmerth of Sweden (68).
Defending champion Matt Kuchar (66) was four shots off the pace along with Masters champion Adam Scott (68), former Masters winner Zach Johnson (71) and Hunter Mahan (70).
Among the notable players missing the cut, which was set at even par, were four-times major winner Phil Mickelson, 2011 champion Rickie Fowler and British Open champion Ernie Els.