PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Aaron Rai not only experienced one of the thrills of his life Saturday at The Players Championship, but also he became a part of tournament history.
A 28-year-old Englishman playing in his first Players Championship, Rai carded a hole-in-one on the iconic par-3 17th hole during the third round.
It was the second ace on the hole this week (Hayden Buckley aced it on Thursday), the first time that ever has happened.
Rai, who said it was the third ace of his career in competition, sandwiched his hole-in-one between a birdie on the par-5 16th hole and a birdie on the difficult par-4 18th. So, he went 4-1-3 to close and finish at 9-under, four off Scottie Scheffler’s lead.
“Seventeen fell at a very good number with my gap wedge,’’ he said. “I hit it great, [it] looked great in the air and very pleased to see it go in. That was an incredible moment. And [I was] very pleased of the way that I played 18 as well on the back end of that.
“It can be quite tricky to compose myself after a situation like that, so to hit a great tee shot, to hit a great second shot and to make birdie was a very pleasing way to finish.’’
Rai shot 31 on the back nine for his 65. He’s one of 31 players competing in his first Players Championship this week and called the hole-in-one “a little bit of a blur.’’
“I saw it go in and then I looked to the left to almost see, ‘Is it real?’ ’’ he said. “I saw the crowd’s hands in the air. In the second after that, I looked to the right towards my caddie and he came running at me. It happened very fast, but it feels very vivid now that I’m even talking about it and remembering some of those images.
“I couldn’t quite believe that it happened, but very, very special. Very special. Something I’ll always remember.’’
So, too, was his experience a few weeks ago at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, where he followed Tiger Woods around for his entire pro-am.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to be able to walk with him, to see him close and see how he plays certain shots around the greens, to see how he prepares, to see the ball flights that he uses,’’ Rai said. “That was my reasoning for watching him on that Wednesday, just to try and learn as much as possible because I haven’t had the opportunity to watch him in practice like that. I was just grateful to be able to see him and also meet him, which was incredible, a real gentleman.’’
A short time after the Rai fireworks, Tom Hoge finished up a 10-under 62, setting the course record.
Hoge, a friendly, unassuming 33-year-old from Statesville, N.C., shot 78 in his opening round and looked like a lock to miss the cut.
But he followed that with a 4-under 68 in his second round, had to sweat out making the cut (which ended being 2-over) and then shot the 62 to stand at 8-under for the tournament.
“I didn’t even know it was a course record until after we got done in the scoring,’’ Hoge said. “Today was going to be the day to do it if you were going to out here because it was soft with little wind, so you felt like you could make birdies and keep trying to make birdies. So just felt fortunate and tried to take advantage of it the best I could.
“It’s just a golf course that really doesn’t reward any sort of style of play. You got to hit it in certain positions and go from there. I feel like it’s a golf course that’s always suited me really well.’’
Jerry Kelly, at age 56, became the oldest player ever to make the cut at The Players, and then he posted a 3-under 69 in the third round to stand at 1-under for the week.
At 56 years, 3 months and 16 days, Kelly broke the long-standing record held by Arnold Palmer, who made the cut in 1985 at 55 years, 6 months and 19 days.
Kelly, who plays on the Champions Tour, bogeyed his final hole of the second round Friday and had to wait it out until the completion of the second Saturday morning, when Eric Cole two-putted his last hole to keep the cut from moving back down to 2-over.
He’s in the field this week by virtue of his win last season at the PGA Tour Champions Bridgestone Senior Players Championship (now called the Kaulig Companies Championship).
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