PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - The hockey player buried inside Jerry Kelly would enjoy digging the puck out of Amen Corner in two weeks.
But to qualify, he first will wrestle with two Masters champions today at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course.
In the tournament that lays claim to being the toughest to win, Kelly is pursuing his first career PGA Tour victory while a fearsome collection of players pursues him.
Kelly shot a 2-under-par 70 Saturday to get to 11-under 205 and expand his lead to two strokes over Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh in The Players Championship.
Scott Hoch is alone in fourth at 8-under 208, with two-time Masters champ Bernhard Langer a shot back at 7-under. Still in the hunt are Billy Mayfair and Paul Azinger at 209 and defending champion Hal Sutton and Kenny Perry at 210.
But all eyes Sunday will be on Kelly. He has more to worry about than Pete Dye's devilish course and the fact that no player has ever made The Players his first victory. He'll get his first taste of Tiger, with Woods sharing the final pairing for the second straight year after shooting Saturday's low round of 6-under 66.
Kelly, 34, put up a confident front: "Tiger is going to be nervous, too. He's never won this tournament, either."
It's a match-up the former hockey player from Wisconsin has waited for since Woods turned professional in 1996 at the same Greater Milwaukee Open where Kelly posted his career-best second-place finish in his hometown event.
"He's the best player in the world, and I want more than anything to play with the best player in the world," he said. "And I want my game to match up. I can't wait for (today)."
Kelly spoke Friday about reining in his fascination with power-driving, electing to take the fairways-and-greens philosophy that elevated Hal Sutton to The Players crown over Woods in 2000. His scoring average in five previous Players appearances was 74.5. This week it's 68.3 as he leads the field in driving accuracy.
"You know, I'm going to be tough to beat," Kelly said. "He's going to have to do something special to beat me. So I just want to go out there and play my game, stay in between my ears."
Kelly stayed in between the rough lines Saturday, hitting 13 of 14 fairways. He hit the pin on the first hole and started with consecutive birdies, adding another at No. 6 to get to 12-under.
When his bogey at the par-3 8th dropped him into a temporary tie with pairing partner Azinger, it wasn't Kelly who faltered to a player with a major pedigree; The veteran Azinger went into full retreat by going 7-over on the next six holes.
Kelly wobbled just a little coming home, missing a 6-foot birdie chance on No. 16 then three-putting from an impossible perch on 17 for bogey.
"Any time you're in the last group and you hold your own, it's a great experience," Kelly said.
Woods was six strokes back at the turn when he started to make his move, sticking a 4-iron approach from 229 yards to 1 foot on the par-5 11th for an eagle. He backed it up with a tap-in birdie on the 12th.
After a birdie on 16, Woods drained a ridiculous downhill 60-foot putt for birdie on the island 17th hole. "If that ball didn't hit the hole, it would have been off the green," he said.
Woods was bummed in the end when he pushed a 3-iron into the rough off the 18th tee and staggered home with a closing bogey.
Woods wasn't discounting Kelly because of the experience gap: "This golf course is not easy, but he's playing well and that's what matters."
Kelly's quest drew plenty of praise from other pursuers.
"I'm not sure you can rule him out quite so quickly," Hoch said. "He's pretty fearless. Who's he playing with - Tigger? If he wins his first tournament and it's here and he's playing with Tiger, my hat's off to him."
Kelly is one of three players atop the leaderboard trying to find the back door into the Masters. Mayfair and Perry are also stalking the three-year exemption to the Masters granted The Players champion.
With Tiger on his tail and his 2-year-old son, Cooper, suffering a double ear infection, a Masters invitation is the last of Kelly's worries.
"I don't want to make those people (at Augusta National) feel bad, but to me this is the bigger tournament," Kelly said. "When I get there, that will be a big tournament. But right now, this is it."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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