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Tommy Fleetwood of England prepares to putt on the 18th green during the third round of play at The Players Championship golf tournament, Monday, March 14, 2022, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

PA

India’s Anirban Lahiri stabilized early with a par and came back in front with a 12-foot birdie to complete a 5-under 67 on Monday morning and take a one-shot lead in the final round of the Players Championship.

The seemingly never-ending tournament now has a clear view of the finish line and the $3.6 million payout for the winner.

And the road is just as crowded.

Colombia’s Sebastian Munoz finished the week-long low round with 65 bogey-free and was in the group one shot behind with Doug Ghim (68), Paul Casey (69) and Sam Burns (71).

Fourteen players were separated by three shots, the margin Justin Thomas made up for in the final round last year. This year’s final round was scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Lahiri would be among the biggest surprise winners of a championship that features the strongest and deepest course in golf. While he has won nine times on tours of Asia and Europe, and played in the Presidents Cup in 2015, he has never won on the PGA Tour.

He’s No. 332 in the world and is aiming for that first PGA Tour title at an event with golf’s biggest purse at $20 million, with $3.6 million going to the winner.

None of this was enough to give him a sleepless night before the last day. He knew he had 25 holes left when he returned in perfect conditions on Monday morning.

“It’s a lot of golf on a lot of golf courses,” Lahiri said. “There’s not much to do too far ahead. I just try to stay in the moment and do what I have to do next.

Lahiri, after a bogey on the No. 15 only to fall back into a header share, went up and down from the left of the green on the par-5 16 with a 12-foot birdie putt to advance. He was at 9 under 207.

Thomas was trying to stay in the game in his bid to become The Players’ first consecutive winner since his debut in 1974. But he found water on the par-5 16th for bogey, and his tree throw on the 18th went in water. He had to make a 12-foot putt for bogey and a 72, leaving him six shots behind.

Tom Hoge, who shared the lead on the 18 and 36 holes, had a 72 and joined Cameron Smith (69) in group two behind. Among those three backs were former British Open champion Shane Lowry, whose third round was highlighted by a hole-in-one on the island’s 17th green; Louis Oosthuizen and Russell Knox, who left Scotland for the University of Jacksonville and never left.

Although it was difficult to keep track of the days, the tournament finally took shape on Monday morning as the number of players in contention seemed to increase.

Players are considered the fifth largest tournament in the world with its $20 million purse, a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and three-year exemptions for the Masters, US Open and British Open.

This requires riding a final lap on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, famous for its water even in the sun.

Munoz made the cut with a shot to spare. Due to all the delays, he started the third round on the back nine away from the leaders and found himself among them, birdieing 18 feet on the par-5 ninth hole to complete his round.

Casey is the most experienced among the top seven in the standings, largely thanks to his Ryder Cup appearances. He started The Players with a triple bogey and is now a behind.

“What an opportunity,” Casey said. “I know you would say it’s not star rating, it’s not the usual suspects. But at every PGA Tour event, the level of golf is amazing.

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