Johnson takes lead as McIlroy heads home

Associated Press Modified: May 11, 2012 at 11:02 pm •  Published: May 11, 2012
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — After breaking 70 for the first time in seven weeks, Tiger Woods headed to the back of the practice range at the TPC Sawgrass to fine-tune his swing. That was much better than going to the clubhouse to clean out his locker.

The Players Championship featured Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson and Kevin Na atop the leaderboard Friday.

What it lacked was some of the golf's biggest names.

Rory McIlroy stumbled to a 76 and became the first player at No. 1 in the world ranking to miss the cut at Sawgrass since Greg Norman in 1996. Steve Stricker had made a PGA Tour-leading 49 cuts in a row until he shot 74 and ended a streak that began in August 2009. And with 11 holes left in his round, Woods was two shots over the cut line and in jeopardy of missing back-to-back cuts for the first time in his career.

The thought never crossed his mind.

Instead, he blistered a 5-wood into the breeze on the eighth hole — the toughest par 3 on the course — and watched it catch a slope on the edge of the green and roll 8 feet away from the cup. That was the first of four straight birdies for Woods, who wound up with a 68.

He said he was only thinking about a 66 to get momentum going into the weekend, and he missed by two.

"I was trying to shoot my number today," Woods said. "Sixty-six was my number today. I figured that would have been a good way to go into the weekend, being probably four or five back. But I'm still with a good chance."

Everyone has a chance going into the weekend, including Woods and Phil Mickelson, the Hall of Fame's newest member. They were six shots behind. But they are chasing the gang from Sea Island — home of Kuchar and Johnson, along with PGA Tour rookie Harris English, who was one shot out of the lead.

Johnson made five birdies on the back nine until a bogey on the 18th hole, though he matched the best score of the second round with a 66. Kuchar, who made a strong run at the Masters last month, played bogey-free over his last 13 holes for a 68. Na started the back nine with three straight birdies for a 69.

"It's fun to be back in position with a chance to win again," Kuchar said.

They were at 8-under 136, meaning only eight shots separate first from worst going into the final 36 holes on a most unpredictable Stadium Course. The top 14 players on the leaderboard were separated by only three strokes.

English birdied the 17th and 18th for a 67, while the group at 6-under 138 included past champion Adam Scott (70).

McIlroy, who only last week lost in a three-way playoff at Quail Hollow, opened with a birdie and didn't make another one the rest of the day. He missed the cut for the first time in more than a year, though it wasn't unusual at the TPC Sawgrass. In three appearances at The Players Championship, McIlroy has never broken par or made the cut.

"Hopefully, I'm coming back here for another 20 years," McIlroy said. "If I don't figure it out on my 20th, there's something wrong."

Woods followed his birdie at No. 8 with an iron over the trees and into a bunker, only about 10 feet from being perfect. He still made birdie, along with a 5-footer on the 10th and a two-putt birdie from the fringe on No. 11.

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