Scottie Scheffler shakes off neck soreness to stay in hunt at Players Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The good news is that Scottie Scheffler played his third round of the Players Championship on Saturday at TPC Sawgrass after experiencing neck and shoulder soreness that threatened to force him to withdraw during Friday’s second round.

The bad news is that Scheffler isn’t likely to defend the Players title he captured a year ago.

Not only because he’ll enter Sunday’s final round five shots behind 54-hole leader Xander Schauffele, but because nobody goes back-to-back to win the Players Championship.

Scottie Scheffler hits a tee shot on the third hole during the third round of the Players Championship. Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

Forty-eight years of history says so as the tournament is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week.

Tiger Woods won two Players Championships, but one came in 2001 and the other came in 2013. Woods, in 2002, failed to break 70 in any of his four rounds and tied for 14th.

Woods missed the 2014 Players with an injury, and finished tied for 69th in 2015.

Jack Nicklaus won the Players three times — all before the tournament was moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1982 after Pete Dye built the Stadium course.

And he never defended any of those three wins.

Many of the game’s best players have tried and failed. In recent years, Justin Thomas won in 2021 and finished tied for 33rdin 2022, Rory McIlroy won in 2019 and missed the cut in his defense try in 2021 (the 2020 tournament was canceled because of COVID-19), Jason Day won in 2016 as the No. 1 ranked player in the world and finished tied for 60th in 2017.

Nick Price’s tie for fifth in 1994 is the best finish by a returning champion.

Scheffler, with KT Tape on the back of his neck to help alleviate the pain, shot a 4-under 68 Saturday to get to 12-under for the tournament.

Scottie Scheffler David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

“I wouldn’t say I’m out of the tournament,’’ Scheffler said. “I’m definitely on the outside looking in, but a hot day [Sunday] could go a long way.’’

Scheffler closed with birdies on 16, 17 and 18 and said, “It’s great to have a nice finish like that. Standing on 16 tee I would say that I was pretty significantly out of the tournament. [Now], I still have a chance. I think I’m still in shooting distance.’’

Asked before the tournament why he believes no one has ever won back-to-back at the Players, Scheffler said, “I think it’s just the nature of the course, it doesn’t really suit one type of player. That’s why I think it’s one of the best places we play on Tour.’’

Maverick McNealy is taking full advantage of his opportunity this week.

He’s on a major medical extension after, from June to November 2023, he took a competitive leave to treat a left shoulder injury.

That gave him free exemptions this season and, entering Sunday’s Players final round, he’s tied for fourth at 13-under — four shots behind leader Xander Schauffele.

McNealy, who shot a second consecutive 4-under 68 on Saturday, began 2024 with 10 available starts to earn 20.886 FedExCup points, which he’s earned to fulfill the major medical extension.

So, the rest of the season is gravy.

“Absolutely, there’s a lot of gratitude,’’ McNealy said of the medical extension. “I feel really grateful that I was able to be back and ready and able to play in this tournament this year. But I think the most fun thing is the way I’ve been playing it and ball-striking my way around this place.

“Looking in practice rounds and even in the tournament at places I’ve had it in the last couple years, and now to be looking at those places from the middle of the fairway has been pretty fun. It’s a lot easier golf course from the fairway, and it can get you standing on your head pretty quickly.’’

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