Sawgrass hopeful Ian Poulter hails Brian Gay for lifting "huge amount" of weight
Three weeks after thinking he had lost his PGA Tour card, Ian Poulter will head into the final round of the £8.1milllion Players Championship just three shots off the lead.
Poulter defied the windy conditions at Sawgrass to card 17 pars and a solitary birdie in a third round of 71 which kept him firmly in contention for a first victory since 2012.
Americans JB Holmes and Kyle Stanley share the lead on nine under par, with former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen a shot behind and South Korea's Si Woo Kim a further stroke adrift.
Argentina's Emiliano Grillo and Poulter held a share of fifth place on six under, with Masters champion Sergio Garcia on five under after matching Grillo's 67.
Poulter has slipped from a career-high of fifth in the world to 197th and was without a full PGA Tour card until 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 in 2016 due to a foot injury, Poulter had 10 events this season to earn 218 FedEx Cup points or 347,634 US dollars (£269,755) to remain fully exempt.
He came up short in both categories after missing the cut in his 10th event last month, 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.
"I've given him some champagne but he tells me he prefers red wine so he'll get some of that as well," Poulter told Sky Sports.
"It's a huge amount of weight lifted, I can't really explain and put it into words. It's a big deal to be able to concentrate on just playing golf and it makes a huge difference."
Speaking about his round, the 41-year-old added: " It was a difficult day. Standing on the range before we went out there was a good constant 25mph wind and on this course that's extremely difficult to play.
"I knew I had to be kind of smart going at certain pins, trying to take opportunities when I had them and to not make any mistakes and obviously a clean card today was very good.
" I wish I had taken a couple of decent opportunities there at the end, it definitely could have been lower, but if you asked me if I'd have taken 71 before teeing off today I would have for sure.
"It's good golf, I'm playing solid (and) I'm happy to be here because a few weeks ago I wasn't, so let's hope tomorrow I can take advantage of that."
Making his first start since claiming a maiden major title at Augusta National, Garcia was four over par for his first six holes of the week and was on the same mark before following 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 the 37-year-old 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 on Saturday, the 2008 champion surged up the leaderboard with a third round of 67 containing six birdies, three bogeys and an eagle.
"It was important to make the cut this week after all the highs from the Masters and how overwhelming everything was at the beginning of the week - I felt like I was playing with a little bit of the handbrake on," Garcia said.
"Today I was able to free up a little bit and hit some really good shots so hopefully I will be able to do more of the same tomorrow."
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 on Monday after suffering a recurrence of the back problem which ruled him out for seven weeks earlier this season, carded four birdies and three bogeys in a 71 to finish one under par, with world number one Dustin Johnson two over after a 74 which included five dropped shots in the last six holes.