Lowry survives but McIlroy falls as Simpson lights up Sawgrass

Lowry survives but McIlroy falls as Simpson lights up Sawgrass
 Webb Simpson

Webb Simpson

Webb Simpson opened up the biggest 36-hole lead in the history of The Players when he put on a phenomenal putting display and fired a course record-equalling 63 to head the field by five shots at TPC Sawgrass.

As Rory McIlroy missed the cut in the PGA Tour’s $11m flagship event first time since 2012, Shane Lowry dramatically scraped in for the weekend alongside Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth on one-under when he made a miraculous closing par for a 68.

But the real drama came from Simpson, who made an eagle at the second and birdies at the fifth, seventh and ninth to go out in five under 31.

With his putter red-hot, the 2012 US Open champion then rattled in a tournament record six birdies in a row from the 11th to go 11-under for his round and raise hopes of the first 59 in The Players.

Scores

He still needed a birdie-birdie finish for the magical number, but with the wind swirling capriciously, he backed off twice on the 17th tee and came up short with his wedge.

His ball ricocheted high into the air off the front bulwark before landing on the green and trickling apologetically over the back into the water, leading to a painful double-bogey five.

A closing par still gave the 32-year old form Carolina the seventh 63 in the event's history and a five-shot lead over Charl Schwartzel (66), Patrick Cantlay (68) and Danny Lee (66) on 15-under par with Chesson Hadley (69),  Charles Howell III (67) and Sweden's Alex Noren (69) a further shot behind on nine-under.

"I got off to a great start with an eagle on two, and it was a day when my shots were going where I was looking," said Simpson, who holed an otherworldly 143-feet of putts in a 23-putt round, eight of them between 11 and 34 feet."

Seeking his first win since the 2014 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, he added: "If I got in trouble I hit a good recovery shot, and on the greens, everything looked good to me. 

"I felt like I was going to make putts that I don't normally look like I am going to make.

"Then 17 was a bummer. It's a tough hole and I blocked it a little bit. I was in between clubs. I backed off a couple of times with the wind, and I was probably pushing a little bit with that club."

With the cut line hovering between one and two under all afternoon, there was a nervous wait for Lowry, who drove into water at the 18th but then hit a 180-yard approach to nine inches to save par and card a super 68 that left him alongside Woods, who shot 71, on one-under.

McIlroy, who hit just six fairways and en green in regulation in round two, was struggling at two-over for the day with five to play. But after getting back to one-under for the round and the tournament with birdies at the 14th and 16th he screwed his wedge at the 17th back into the lake and made a costly double-bogey five to shoot 74 and miss out by two shots on one-over.

Jason Day (67) is in a group seven behind on eight under with world No 1 Dustin Johnson a shot further back after a 71.

Woods fared better than playing partners Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler who shot 73 and 71 respectively to miss the cut on eight-over and one-over

But the 14-time major winner was still frustrated to not to take advantage of some good ball-striking as he mixed two birdies with one bogey for a 71.

Believing he needs "something in the mid-60s" when he plays alongside Lowry for the first time today to get back into contention, he said: "I was just a touch off. I had my chances and missed a few opportunities. 

"I didn't quite swing it right today and didn't have the ball flight. With the greens as soft as they are, I didn’t take advantage to shoot a good number.”

He added: "This golf course can be had and it looks like most of the guys are doing it.

"I didn't get off to the greatest of starts — even par on back nine through the first three holes and those are three really easy holes.

"This course is demanding if you are just a touch off. Looking at the leaderboard with the cut one-under par right now, that's pretty frightening. 

“It's playing so warm out here, the ball is flying, and it's playing pretty short."

Revealing that the longest club he hit was a six-iron to the 18th, his ninth, he said: “I didn’t hit the ball close enough in the right section where I had those 10-12 footers, which I should do with nine iron on down.“