Fowler back in the picture

Rickie Fowler has given himself a great chance of back-to-back wins at The Players Championship.

US young gun Rickie Fowler has given himself a great chance of back-to-back wins after some spectacular, third-round heroics at The Players Championship.

Just six days after beating fellow 23-year-old Rory McIlroy in a play-off to claim his maiden PGA Tour win and only a day after he saw the Northern Irish World No 1 miss the cut, Fowler fired a sizzling 6-under 66 at TPC Sawgrass to surge up the leaderboard into third place, three shots off the pace being set by Korean-American Kevin Na at 12-under 204 and two back from fellow American Matt Kuchar.

And it could have been even better.

Fowler three-putted from the fringe of the 18th green and as a consequence will go into Sunday’s final 18 holes at nine under par and flying.

Until now Na was best known for taking 16 strokes on one hole at the Texas Open last year, but his 68 on moving Saturday at The Players was a far cry from that.

His golf, on the other hand, was frustrating to watch. He had so much trouble committing to shots that he had to repeatedly apologise to playing partner Zach Johnson for keeping him waiting and it was not surprising that he was warned for slow play.

“I’m fighting with balance over the ball and I’m changing my backswing. There’s a lot going on and I know the whole world’s watching,” Na said afterwards in attempting to explain his problem.

“It’s really frustrating for me and I’m screaming at myself to pull the trigger.

“All I can do is my best. After backing off once I almost feel like I’m cornered. It’s a tough situation, but I’m working on it and it’s getting better. Hopefully it will go away by the end of the year.”

In the meantime, Fowler, who rocketed from 17th to third, was delighted to find himself right back in contention for the second week in a row.

“I feel I am among the ones under the least pressure coming off a win,” he said.

“I’m really excited about tomorrow and very confident in my game. I felt like I had the speed with the putter and it was a lot of fun.”

Americans have not won The Players big, first-prize bonanza since Phil Mickelson did it five years ago, but it is looking good for them this year.

Johnson, who was Fowler’s and Kuchar’s team-mate in the last Ryder Cup, is in a two tie for fourth with 2003 Open champion Ben Curtis, whose recent victory in the Valera Texas Open ended a barren spell during which he lost his PGA Tour card,

Kuchar actually led by two standing on the tee and facing the intimidating island green at the short 17th, but, as so many others have done this week, he plopped his ball down in the lake and did well to escape with a bogey.

The British challenge? Scot Martin Laird, who had shared then first round lead with England’s Ian Poulter, and Londoner Brian Davis – both based in the United States – remain the highest placed Europeans on the leaderboard after each posted level-pat 72s that kept them at six under.

They are in joint sixth place.

Laird, looking for his third victory in the USA, said: “After the way I started I will happily take level par today. It was extremely tough early on and I hit some bad shots.

“But then I hit a few good ones coming in, so that’s good going into tomorrow.”

Davis, yet to win in America, said: “The first six or seven holes were really hard, but on the back nine the wind dropped and there were some birdies to be had.

“I’m extremely disappointed with my finish, though.”

He missed clear-cut birdie chances on the 16th and 17th and then failed to get up and down on the last.

“It leaves me with a lot to do. My swing held up, but I didn’t putt well and I will go and work on that.”

Luke Donald (72), Lee Westwood (74 without a single birdie) and Tiger Woods (72) failed to make the moves they were hoping for and will resume three under, one under and two under respectively, while Ian Poulter had a 71 playing with Fowler and stands four under – good enough for joint 14th.

The Top 10 leaderboard

204 Kevin Na 67 69 68
205 Matt Kuchar 68 68 69
207 Rickie Fowler 72 69 66
209 Zach Johnson 70 66 73, Ben Curtis 68 71 70
210 Brian Davis (Eng) 68 70 72, Martin Laird (Sco) 65 73 72, Jonathan Byrd 68 70 72, Jhonattan Vegas (Ven) 68 74 68
211 Charlie Wi (Kor) 71 67 73, Bo Van Pelt 71 70 70, Johnson Wagner 69 73 69, Blake Adams 66 73 72