April 22nd, 2024

Clark sets a big target at Players. Scheffler coping with pain in his neck

By Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press on March 15, 2024.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Scottie Scheffler had his 25th consecutive round under par Friday in The Players Championship, and this was hard work. He felt pain in his neck that required treatment on the course, and he struggled to swing and to stay within range of Wyndham Clark.

Clark was playing in the group behind, oblivious to Scheffler’s injury or anything else. He ran off four straight birdies on the front nine and finished with a 7-under 65, one shot short of the 36-hole record at the TPC Sawgrass.

He had a five-shot lead as Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele set out in a hot, breezy afternoon to try to catch him.

Scheffler was simply happy to be done. He felt something wrong on his fourth full swing of the day, a shot that went left on the par-5 11th that kept him from a good look at birdie. He got treatment before his tee shots on three straight holes and managed a 3-under 69.

“I felt a little something in my neck, and then I tried to hit my tee shot on 12, and that’s when I could barely get the club back,” Scheffler said through a PGA Tour official. “So I got some treatment, maybe loosened it up a tiny bit. But most of the day, I was pretty much laboring to get the club somehow away from me.”

The hope for Scheffler is he would have free range by the weekend. The concern is that he already was No. 1 in the world and appearing to hit another gear coming off his five-shot victory last week at Bay Hill until this injury interruption.

Clark is proving each week to be a serious challenger no matter Scheffler’s condition.

The U.S. Open champion already shot 60 at Pebble Beach to win in 54 holes because of weather, and he was the only player who mounted any challenge against Scheffler at Bay Hill last week, finishing runner-up.

He got through the back nine on another calm, sunny morning in 1 under and then started hitting everything close to perfect – a wedge to 18 inches on No. 1, a simple up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 second, a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-3 third and a wedge to 4 feet on the fourth hole.

“I’m just super excited that kind of had a ho-hum front nine and then turned and really just got into a nice zone and felt really good on the greens and shot an awesome number,” Clark said.

He closed with a birdie for a 30 on the front nine and was at 14-under 130. The 36-hole record for The Players is Webb Simpson in 2018. Simpson had a five-shot lead going into the weekend that year and it was a runaway.

Former U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick had a double bogey on No. 4 that slowed his momentum. He had to settle for a 69 and was five shots behind, along with Maverick McNealy, who finished with a 67 in the morning and followed with a 68.

Scheffler was in the group at 8-under 136, and by the sound of it, he was happy to be there.

“I did enough to keep myself somewhat in the tournament, and so that’s really all I could ask for,” Scheffler said. “The way I was getting around the course, the way my neck was feeling, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to continue playing. So yeah, good fight out there.”

Scheffler converted two of his four birdie chances at the start, but then he walked briskly up the hill toward the 14th tee with his physio, Marnus Marais. He sat on a chair behind the 14th tee with Marais working on him.

Scheffler drilled his drive down the middle and had a 20-foot birdie chance. Then he walked through the palmetto bushes, away from spectators, for more work. Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler hit their tee shots and waited on Scheffler. The same scene played out after the 15th.

The PGA Tour has guidelines on undue play – even allowing the next group to play through, although that wasn’t the case. Therapists can’t accompany them around the course, and Marais had other players to see back at the clubhouse.

Scheffler two-putted for birdie on the par-5 second, chipped in for birdie from just short of the third green with a front pin, finished his round and off he went.

Clark, meanwhile, looks to be a daunting target. A year ago at The Players Championship, hardly anyone knew who he was. But the 29-year-old from Denver is working his way into the elite in golf as much with his big titles – two signature events and one major – as his No. 5 world ranking.


AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf

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