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Johnson Takes Lead As McIlroy Heads Home

Matt Kuchar of the United States hits an approach shot on the 18th hole as caddie Lance Bennett looks on during the second round of THE PLAYERS Championship held at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 11, 2012 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Matt Kuchar of the United States hits an approach shot on the 18th hole as caddie Lance Bennett looks on during the second round of THE PLAYERS Championship held at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 11, 2012 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — After breaking 70 for the first time in seven weeks, Tiger Woods headed to the back of the practice range at the TPC Sawgrass to fine-tune his swing. That was much better than going to the clubhouse to clean out his locker.

The Players Championship featured Matt Kuchar, Zach John and Kevin Na atop the leaderboard Friday.

What it lacked was some of the golf’s biggest names.

Rory McIlroy stumbled to a 76 and became the first player at No. 1 in the world ranking to miss the cut at Sawgrass since Greg Norman in 1996. Steve Stricker had made a PGA Tour-leading 49 cuts in a row until he shot 74 and ended a streak that began in August 2009. And with 11 holes left in his round, Woods was two shots over the cut line and in jeopardy of missing back-to-back cuts for the first time in his career.

The thought never crossed his mind.

Instead, he blistered a 5-wood into the breeze on the eighth hole — the toughest par 3 on the course — and watched it catch a slope on the edge of the green and roll 8 feet away from the cup. That was the first of four straight birdies for Woods, who wound up with a 68.

He said he was only thinking about a 66 to get momentum going into the weekend, and he missed by two.

“I was trying to shoot my number today,” Woods said. “Sixty-six was my number today. I figured that would have been a good way to go into the weekend, being probably four or five back. But I’m still with a good chance.”

Everyone has a chance going into the weekend, including Woods and Phil Mickelson, the Hall of Fame’s newest member. They were six shots behind. But they are chasing the gang from Sea Island — home of Kuchar and Johnson, along with PGA Tour rookie Harris English, who was one shot out of the lead.

Johnson made five birdies on the back nine until a bogey on the 18th hole, though he matched the best score of the second round with a 66. Kuchar, who made a strong run at the Masters last month, played bogey-free over his last 13 holes for a 68. Na started the back nine with three straight birdies for a 69.

“It’s fun to be back in position with a chance to win again,” Kuchar said.

They were at 8-under 136, meaning only eight shots separate first from worst going into the final 36 holes on a most unpredictable Stadium Course. The top 14 players on the leaderboard were separated by only three strokes.

English birdied the 17th and 18th for a 67, while the group at 6-under 138 included past champion Adam Scott (70).

McIlroy, who only last week lost in a three-way playoff at Quail Hollow, opened with a birdie and didn’t make another one the rest of the day. He missed the cut for the first time in more than a year, though it wasn’t unusual at the TPC Sawgrass. In three appearances at The Players Championship, McIlroy has never broken par or made the cut.

“Hopefully, I’m coming back here for another 20 years,” McIlroy said. “If I don’t figure it out on my 20th, there’s something wrong.”

Woods followed his birdie at No. 8 with an iron over the trees and into a bunker, only about 10 feet from being perfect. He still made birdie, along with a 5-footer on the 10th and a two-putt birdie from the fringe on No. 11.

“I hit a good shot there at 8 and made the putt, and from there I really hit some good shots,” Woods said. “I probably could have gotten one or two more out of it. But I really played well today. I was just very consistent, and nothing spectacular, just real solid golf.”

Martin Laird was solid for 33 holes and was the only player to reach double digits under par for the week. He was at 10 under with three holes to play when he lost four shots on the last three holes. His hopes for eagle turned into bogey with a 4-iron into the water on the 16th, and he dunked one on No. 17 for double bogey.

The good news?

“I’m glad it happened on a Friday, and not on Sunday,” Laird said after a 73 put him in a large group two shots behind.

Ben Curtis and FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas were in the group at 5-under 139, while the group at 3-under 141 included Quail Hollow playoff winner Rickie Fowler and Luke Donald, who at least has a chance to go back to No. 1 in the world now that McIlroy has missed the cut. Lee Westwood also was at 141.

Johnson started with two birdies and felt in control for most of the sunny morning.

“I never really gave the golf course much,” he said. “In other words, I kept it where you need to keep it. My misses were proper. I was aggressive when I could be aggressive. And I caught a couple nice saves in there, too. But when you shoot that kind of score around this golf course — any day in the year, or any week — you’re putting well. Clearly, that’s what I’ve been doing the best.”

Laird went to 10 under with his birdie on the 15th. Then, he hit a beautiful tee shot on the 16th and was in perfect range to think about an eagle.

“It was one of those ones that I had an absolutely perfect number for a 4-iron,” Laird said. “It’s one of those ones that you almost wish that you don’t, and you play a little safer. I hit three or four great iron shots in a row right at the flag and kind of got a little greedy there and tried to fade one in the wind. So that was the first mental mistake I’ve made all week. If you do that on your 16th hole in the second round, you’re doing pretty well.”

He went into the water on the 17th, and his third shot was some 50 feet away. He ran the bogey putt to the back edge of the green, and made a 12-footer for double bogey. He then failed to get up-and-down from right of the 18th green.

Even so, he’s still in the hunt going into the weekend. And that’s all anyone wants on this course, anyway.

“I’ve just got to take out of it that I played the last three in 4-over par, and I’m still third,” Laird said. “So I’m obviously playing some pretty good golf leading up to that. You don’t lose that in the space of three holes. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

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