PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The way Rory McIlroy has played the back nine at TPC Sawgrass, he should be in position to win The Players Championship.
The way he has played the front nine, he was lucky to make the cut.
Rarely has there been such a tale of two nines. Through three rounds, McIlroy was 21 shots better on the back nine. He padded that total Saturday by closing with three straight birdies for a 69, atoning for another rugged start.
"I'm 12-under par for the back nine, and I'm 9 over for the front nine," McIlroy said. "I don't know what it is about the front. It's like kryptonite. I get on it and I just can't function."
He was 4 over through six holes in the third round and appeared likely to miss the 54-hole cut. He played 7 under the rest of the way, with five birdies on the back nine. McIlroy was 6 over through six holes in the second round, and shot 32 on the back, including a birdie on the 18th to make the cut on the number.
In the opening round, he was among the leaders. Trouble was, he started on No. 10. When he got to the front nine, he made three bogeys on the last seven holes and had to settle for a 70.
"Once I get on the back nine, I feel so comfortable. I feel like I can shoot anything," McIlroy said. "I've got to go out tomorrow and try to keep it together a little bit on the front nine, even if that means pars, not doing anything special."
It's not just the Stadium Course. McIlroy is playing well enough to have won this year. He's hitting enough poor shots to hold him back.
"That's OK," he said. "That's positive to know you're playing so many good shots and you're making birdies. I'm giving myself loads of chances. I'm converting a lot of them. I'm just making too many mistakes. But that's easier to sort out than not being able to make a lot of birdies."
RYDER CUP FEVER: Martin Kaymer at times felt like he was at the Ryder Cup during the third round of The Players Championship.
That wasn't a good sign.
Jordan Spieth made a 12-foot par putt on the 18th hole. Kaymer then missed his 10-foot par putt, falling into a share of the lead with Spieth. After he missed the putt, there was audible cheering from around the 18th green "which I wish didn't happen," Spieth said.
"When he missed his putt, there were some cheers ... like a Ryder Cup," Spieth said. "He handled it gracefully. Just a class act. Took his hat off, smiled, and we were saying how much we enjoyed playing with each other and we'll enjoy it tomorrow."
Kaymer didn't seem put off.
He said when he won the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, the gallery was clearly on the side of Bubba Watson.
"When you're trying to win a big tournament, usually the big tournaments you play them in America," said Kaymer, a 29-year-old German. "So I'm always a foreigner. It's a good challenge. It's another challenge of that day. It's not easy, but I know what's going to happen. I know what I can expect, and therefore it's OK."
Kaymer did OK in his last Ryder Cup. He beat Steve Stricker on the 18th hole to ensure Europe kept the Ryder Cup.
SECONDARY CUT: Because more than 78 made the cut, the PGA Tour's 54-hole cut was in effect. With a course like TPC Sawgrass, making it to Sunday was more about not moving down than moving up.
Of the 19 players who made the 36-hole cut on the number (even-par 144), 15 of them advanced.
Ernie Els appeared to be one of them until hitting his second shot into the water on the par-5 16th and his tee shot into the water on the 18th. Those two double bogeys gave him a 75, and after signing his card, he said it was time to leave -- or words to that affect. Els wound up missing the secondary cut by one shot.
Jeff Overton and Joost Luiten were at 2-under 142 going into Saturday. Overton shot 83 and Luiten shot 82, and both were on their way out of town. Also gone was Rickie Fowler, who had a 78, and Jonas Blixt, a runner-up at the Masters. He shot 77.
NO. 1 CHASE: Even after a sluggish start, the race for No. 1 in the world is alive and well Sunday at The Players.
Adam Scott needed a birdie on the ninth hole Friday just to make the cut. He shot 69 on Saturday to move into a tie for 28th. Scott, depending on what the others do, could replace Tiger Woods atop the world ranking with at least a two-way tie for 16th.
Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar were tied for 13th, seven shots out of the lead.
Stenson would need to finish in a two-way tie for sixth or better. Watson has to finish alone in second. Kuchar would have to win.
Kuchar is the only player entered in the Byron Nelson Championship next week.