Good luck predicting how Players Championship will play out

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- He sounded beaten and broken, which says something about the difficulty of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, home to the Players Championship and a perplexing array of oddities associated with the tournament.

Pat Perez shot the best round of the day, a 6-under-par 66, during the third round. He made seven birdies and not a single bogey until the final hole. He moved into the fringe of contention, 5 strokes behind leaders J.B. Holmes and Kyle Stanley, despite being well back when Saturday's play began.

"There's not a shot out there that I'm comfortable hitting," Perez said.

Perhaps that is why the PGA Tour's flagship event, the one that has been played on this venue at tour headquarters since 1982, has managed to puzzle the prognosticators for so long. It has never had a repeat champion, and you have to stretch to find any player with a consistently good record here.

And that, in part, explains the oddity of the leaderboard as the Players heads into the final round, with Holmes and Stanley out front, followed by Louis Oosthuizen, Si Woo Kim, Emiliano Grillo and Ian Poulter.

The players' homelands -- United States, South Africa, South Korea, Argentina and England -- are surpassed in diversity only by their golf games.

Throw in Spain's Sergio Garcia, Sweden's Alex Noren, Italy's Francesco Molinari, Spain's Rafa Cabrera Bello and Perez, and you have an eclectic group of players with all manner of backgrounds and styles.

TPC Sawgrass is as democratic as it gets. Long hitters, short hitters; veterans, rookies; prolific winners, journeymen. All manner of players have won here over the years, making for some odd leaderboard sightings.

"It doesn't favor anybody because Tim Clark has won and Tiger [Woods] and Jason Day," Perez said. "Tim Clark's got four head covers [meaning he is a short hitter] but he knows where they're going. He hits those hybrids straighter than I hit my wedge. He's incredible. And he putted well.

"Then you've got Tiger having won twice and you have seen it up and down the line."

Perhaps the best example: In 2004, long-hitting Adam Scott became the youngest winner in tournament history at age 24; a year later, short-hitting Fred Funk became the oldest winner in tournament history at age 48.

Leaders Holmes and Stanley are veterans, but neither has done much this season to distinguish himself. Oosthuizen won the 2010 Open, and lost two other majors in playoffs, but the South African has never won in the United States.

Kim, who won the Wyndham Championship last year, has missed seven cuts this season. Garcia, in his first tournament since winning the Masters, rallied with a 67 on Saturday to move into a tie for seventh, 4 shots off the lead.

The 2008 Players champion is the only golfer in the top 12 who has won this tournament in the past.

Jason Day, who shot 73, is 8 strokes back, which likely means the tournament's streak of a defending champion failing to follow with a victory a year later will continue.

"All the great players who have won here, they all have different styles of game, so I think that the course is open to so many different guys to have a chance to win that maybe that's why it makes it a little bit harder to go back-to-back here," Scott said. "There's just more guys in the mix. Length isn't a huge factor, not a huge advantage.

"Of course it is if you hit it dead straight down the middle, but there's a lot of fairway run-outs and a few doglegs and things like that that bring the long hitters back to play from the same area as the other guys. So you're all kind of playing from the same spot and that leaves it open for anyone."

Maybe that explains why someone such as No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, who has three wins, a third and a second in his past five starts, has never finished better than a tie for 28th and is tied for 44th going into the final round. World No. 2 Rory McIlroy missed the cut in his first three years here and then has had four straight top-10s, but is currently in a tie for 20th.

Jordan Spieth has gone the other way. He contended his first year, tying for fourth in 2014. Now he has missed the cut three straight times.

"It doesn't seem to favor experience or newbies, because it requires extreme accuracy off the tee, and then from there taking the right chances where you feel like you have good [yardage] numbers or you can take chances," Spieth said earlier this week. "You just can't get away with as much here versus other places."

What does that portend for Sunday? Just about anything can happen. The gusty wind that led to only seven players shooting in the 60s -- and 49 of 82 players making at least one double-bogey -- is predicted to come from another direction, which should make the closing, water-laden 16th, 17th and 18th holes all the more daunting.

That is where little-known Craig Perks made his mark in 2002. A year prior, Woods won the tournament for the first time after finishing runner-up the year before. Then Perks went eagle-birdie-par over the final three holes, playing them in just 9 shots, to win the prestigious tournament.

He never won again, and retired from competitive golf in 2007. Woods didn't contend at TPC Sawgrass after his victory for 12 years until winning in 2013. Phil Mickelson, who won the first Players contested in May in 2007, has not finished in the top 15 since and missed four straight cuts coming into this year; a 78 on Saturday has him in a tie for 67th.

Last year, Mickelson wondered aloud, "How did I ever win here?"

Such is the nature of the Pete Dye-designed course that seemingly never allows even the most accomplished and experienced players to get comfortable.

"Doesn't fit my eye on almost any shot, like everybody else," Perez said. "That's how it was designed. So you know who loves it? Maybe the winner on Sunday. That's about it."