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Alex Cejka leads by five, but Tiger Woods is right there with him

Woods moves up the leaderboard at the Players to get a spot in the last group.

May 10, 2009|Teddy Greenstein

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLA. — Asked what he would work on after his erratic third round, Tiger Woods replied: "My appetite. I'm going to go eat."

At that point, Woods was tied for ninth at the Players Championship. By the time his entree would have arrived, Woods was seventh. And during dessert, he rocketed up the leaderboard into a tie for second.

That means he'll be in the final pairing today with tournament leader Alex Cejka, who has never won on American soil, ranks 267th in the world and might be feeling a little queasy right about now, even though he has a five-shot lead at 11-under-par 205.

"There will be more spectators and more pressure than if I were playing with Kevin Na or whoever else is at six under," Cejka conceded. "But I have to go out and do my job."

There are six players at six under, but there's no question who is the one to watch.

Woods began the day tied for 22nd and shot a seemingly modest two-under 70.

"Two birdies and all pars, right?" Woods joked off-camera to NBC's Jimmy Roberts.

Woods' round was anything but conventional -- more on that later -- but it helped him gain ground on every player in front of him. Why? Because with the temperature soaring to 92 degrees, the greens at TPC Sawgrass took on the feel of concrete.

Woods described them as "baked out," "really dry" and "really crusty."

"It's tough to get the ball close," he said.

Cejka, though, did just that on No. 18. But he had to land his ball on the fringe to get to a back-right pin from 167 yards. His approach settled five feet from the cup, and Cejka stroked it home for a birdie and an even-par 72.

"I was trying to hang in there like a pit bull," he said.

When he was 9, Cejka and his father escaped from Czechoslovakia by crossing Yugoslavia, Italy and Switzerland by foot, train, bike and swimming stroke.

You almost wonder which is harder: fleeing Communism or being paired with Woods in the final round of a near-major.

Just six weeks ago, Woods trailed Sean O'Hair by five entering the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He won the event with a 12-foot birdie clincher on 18.

"I've played with him twice before," Cejka said. "Once in an exhibition, once in the last round of the British Open. . . . I beat him. We'll see."

Cejka's British Open triumph -- if you want to call it that -- came in 1996, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He shot 67 to finish tied for 11th. Woods, then an amateur, shot 70 to finish tied for 22nd.

Woods' surge to second is remarkable considering he hit only seven of 14 fairways -- and bogeyed the par-five 11th in remarkable fashion, even hitting one shot left-handed.

"Right now he has no clue with the driver," Johnny Miller said on NBC.

The man who won the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg might win the Players with no swing.

"I'm just grinding it out," he said.

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tgreenstein@tribune.com

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