Masters champion Sergio Garcia continued his remarkable turnaround in fortunes to climb into contention for a second Players Championship title and third win of the season.
Making his first start since claiming a maiden major title at Augusta National, Garcia had been four over par for his first six holes at Sawgrass after four-putting the fifth, the same hole he six-putted in the third round last year.
The 37-year-old was still four over with three holes to play on Thursday, but he followed a birdie on the 16th by recording a hole-in-one on the famous ‘island green’ 17th to salvage an opening 73.
A second round of 71 still left Garcia nine shots off the halfway lead and seemingly not in the frame to join Tiger Woods as the only players to win the Masters and Players Championship in the same year.
However, with blustery winds making scoring difficult yesterday, the 2008 champion surged up the leaderboard with a third round of 67 to lie just a shot off the clubhouse lead held by Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo.
The world No.6 bounced back from a bogey on the first with birdies on the fourth, sixth and ninth, while a bogey on the tenth was followed by a hat-trick of birdies from the 11th and an eagle on the par-five 16th.
A three-putt bogey on the 18th took some of the gloss off a superb round, but as he signed his card the Ryder Cup star was just three off the lead held by former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.
Oosthuizen was one over par for his first four holes, although that was good enough to lead by one from Americans Kyle Stanley and JB Holmes, with England’s Ian Poulter a shot further back alongside Grillo, who had matched Garcia’s 67.
Poulter is looking to make the most of retaining his PGA Tour card after fellow professional Brian Gay alerted officials to a discrepancy in the points structure used for players competing on major medical extensions.
After playing just 13 tournaments last year due to a foot injury, Poulter had ten events this season to earn 218 FedEx Cup points or $347,634 (£269,755) to remain fully exempt.
He came up short in both categories, with 155 FedEx Cup points and $317,010 (£245,991), but Gay – who was also playing on a medical exemption after back problems – came to the rescue by discovering a difference between the way points were allotted this season compared to a year ago.
Further down the leaderboard, Rory McIlroy was still struggling to rediscover his top form in his first event since the Masters, after which he got married and signed a multi-million pound equipment deal with TaylorMade.
McIlroy, who will have an MRI scan tomorrow after suffering a recurrence of the back problem which ruled him out for seven weeks earlier this season, made the ideal start with a birdie on the first.
But the four-time major winner then bogeyed the fifth. And although he did birdie the ninth for the third day running, birdies on the 16th and 17th were cancelled out by bogeys on the 14th and 18th.
The resulting 71 left McIlroy on one under par overall, with world No.1 Dustin Johnson two over after a 74 which included five dropped shots in the last six holes.