Okay, quick question: what’s the richest tournament on the PGA Tour? The US Open, right? Gotta be one of the majors, surely? Nope. It’s the Players’ Championship. Well, it’s traditionally been that way. The WGC events have pushed their purses up this year to match the Players’ $8M payoff, but the WGCs are arrivistes compared to the established Players’ (which has been around since 1974). Not to mention the fact that the same guy wins all the WGCs every time, but he’s only won the Players’ once. However, the Players’ status was reconfirmed by the new FedEx Cup format. The winner of the Players’ earns the same number of FedEx Cup points as a major winner. Only the winner-takes-all final four tournaments of the year have more points available than the Players’.
The Players’ Championship was designed by former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman to be a celebration of the men who play the game, an opportunity to bring the best in the world together. At first, it was the huge purse that drew everyone to the TPC at Sawgrass. Then, the tournament started to gain stature. Pretty soon, it was being called The Fifth Major, a status it’s retained despite the creation of the WGC events. One of the big reasons for this is the perks that being a winner of the Players’ brings you. No other tournament on tour gives you a three-year exemption to all the majors for winning. You also get a five-year Tour exemption on top of that (normal tournaments give you immunity from Q School for two years).
The list of winners is storied. Jack won three of the first five, for starters. Between 1991 and 2001, inclusive, the tournament didn’t have a winner who also wasn’t a major champion at some point in his career. It’s been a place for a young golfer to make a statement, like Adam Scott did three years ago. It’s been a place for some to recapture some glory; Fred Funk owns exempt status on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour thanks to his Players’ win two years ago. It’s even been a place to get a little redemption, like Stephen Ames did last year after his record-setting bitch-slap by Tigger at the Accenture Match Play. But, as always, it’s man against course, and TPC Sawgrass is a true test.
In fact, it’s the course that’s taking the starring role this year. Before this year, the Players’ was always held in March, and the greenskeepers at Sawgrass always had to do some creative re-seeding of the course with hardier strains of rye and the nightmarish St. Augustine around the greens in order to compensate for the weather. Even in Florida, standard strains of grass aren’t ready for use in March. With the tournament now pushed back to May, in order to provide the players with something to stick around America for in the gap between the Masters and the US Open, TPC Sawgrass can now be seeded and played as Pete Dye intended. The entire course was ripped up, and a new strain of Bermuda grass from Georgia used over a new irrigation and drainage system. The greens had a new aeration system installed and were also reseeded with Bermuda; most of the greens have been recontoured. The rough can now be cut to three inches rather than the five or six inches it normally was set to, providing better chances for shots but with less spin coming out. The course has been lengthened by 122 yards for the tournament, now playing at a comfortable-but-nasty 7124 yards. All in all, the course is now faster than it’s ever been, with more hazards coming into play due to the speed of the fairways and greens, especially the brand-new bunkers on 7, which at about 300 yards out is right in the landing area of most pros. Combine that with a virtually brand-new clubhouse that makes Versailles drool with envy, and it’s a testament to golf.
But something still remains the same at Sawgrass. It all comes down to one hole.
It may be the most famous hole in golf. Certainly it’s the most famous par-3 (the most famous par-4 is 17 at St. Andrews, the most famous par-5 18 at Pebble). It was said to have been inspired by Pete Dye’s wife, who supposedly suggested to Pete while he was designing the course to totally surround the 17th green with water. Since TPC Sawgrass opened, the design has been copied everywhere, but there’s nothing like the original. If you’re in New York, you can head over to Rockefeller Center right now and test your luck against a scale model. If you play Sawgrass itself, you’re thinking about it from before the first tee.
The adrenaline starts pumping as you get closer. And then you reach it, and your mind starts going nuts. Even the distance is a test of your golf acumen. For most average golfers, it’s right between an 8 and a 7 (Tigger could probably play lob wedge into it). You have to decide. Do you play a hard 8 and risk leaving it short, or putting too much spin on it so that the ball goes forward into the water? Or do you play a soft 7 and risk putting not enough spin on it to stop the ball from running over the back of the green, or even worse, overhitting it because your adrenaline is pumping so much? Do you play for the pin, knowing that it’s always in the worst possible location (there is no good pin location on that green), or do you play it safe, aiming purposely toward the bunker in the hope that the sand can catch an errant shot and still give you a chance at par? Do you pray it stays out of the bunker, knowing that you’re probably not going to be able to stop any bunker shot?
You can see it in your mind while you’re in the clubhouse waiting for your group to go off. The horizontal elongation that makes the green seem narrower than it is. The slopes in the green that can make one inch off on the landing mean the difference between putting the ball near the pin and having it spin off the green into the water. The single little bunker, only fifty-five square feet, that can save your round or destroy it. 17 is an icon. The foolhardy play Sawgrass for the chance to conquer it. The wise give it its due, and if they sacrifice balls to Poseidon, so be it. The gods, and Pete Dye, intended it that way. And this year, it’s an even bigger challenge. The contours have been changed. There is now the possibility of a right-hand pin placement, and anything to the right on the 17th green is a nightmare. The back’s been raised slightly, but not enough to compensate for the faster Bermuda. Your ball will go slightly slower into the drink, that’s all. The water only goes up to your chest, but your round can drown in it easily.
Even the drop area is nasty. It’s only 75 yards to the pin. That’s a soft wedge, and your spin problem becomes even greater. Most golfers just retee instead of using the drop area for good reason. But if you hit in the water, you’re not alone. Sawgrass management says that over 120000 balls are hit into the water every year. They have to hire divers four times a year to clean the place up.
If golf is a game for masochists, as many claim, 17 at Sawgrass is the ultimate pleasure/pain experience. There have been some famous holes-in-one here, but not many (only six total in tournament history, plus Fred Couples’ Weirdest Par In History, as he put a ball in the drink, reteed, and holed the reshot for par). Seeing the best in the world try to conquer this hole is a must-watch experience. In fact, the PGA Tour gives you the opportunity to watch 17 and only 17 over the Net. No other hole is graced in this way. Even playing it on computer simulations makes you nervous. Now imagine putting a share of eight million bucks on the line. This is why these guys play for a living while we screw around on weekends trying to break 90.
So, which golfers should we look for to be there on Sunday, heading into the sharp teeth of 17?
Tigger: His Players’ Championship exemption ran out this year. Fortunately, he’s got other exemptions to rely on. He passed one of the stiffest tests in golf at Quail Hollow this past weekend, with its US Open-style fairways and Augusta-style greens. If the fairways are really as fast as claimed, he’s going to be hitting short clubs into all the greens and be able to shape his shots. His fairway accuracy seems to be improving, and even if he starts missing greens, he’s always been one of the best chippers around. He’s only won here once, but the reconstruction gives him a much better chance. Expect him to be there.
Vijay Singh: Yes, he’s in the World Golf Hall Of Fame, but that doesn’t mean his resume doesn’t have gaps. This is the biggest one. He’s never won. He’s finished second only once, to Tigger in 2001. But he’s playing steadier than he has in years. His putting problems are pretty much history. His win at Bay Hill earlier this year has put his problems playing in Florida to rest. If he captures a Players’, this would seem to be the time.
Adam Scott: His win here in 2004 was the beginning of a great career for him. He’s now a Top Five golfer, and his win at Houston has helped his image a great deal. He needs to start stepping up a bit more. Capturing a second Players’ would be the way to do it. It’ll give him some unstoppable momentum heading into the US Open.
Phil Mickelson: He’s never won here either, but that’s not as much of a surprise as Veej. The course has never played to his strengths. His collapse at the first hole on Sunday at the Masters affected his mind (again, no surprise), and he brought in Butch Harmon to retool his swing. He’s had some good results since, but not a true breakthrough. His result here will be a good preliminary result in regard to his swing changes. No win, but a top ten is likely.
Zach Johnson: The next big test for this year’s Masters champion. People are still wondering if he’s for real or just a journeyman who never lived up to his potential having an uncharacteristic breakthrough. He’s for real and has always been. But he still believes he has something to prove. Accuracy off the tee will be essential for him. If he starts spraying them, he’s in trouble.
Stephen Ames: Your defending champion. Put a major-league bitch-slap on the field last year in a runaway. That won’t happen this year, but you can never count a defending champion out. Good season for him so far.
Padraig Harrington: He’s at the point where he’s starting to look at his legacy. No majors, no Players’, not good. He’s beating himself about blowing his third-round lead at the Wachovia, and that might carry over here. If he’s in the hunt on Sunday, though, he could easily put a charge together.
Ernie Els: Also has never won here. He’s getting a little bit desperate at this point for a win, but that desperation never clouds his judgment. The course changes play to his game very well. It won’t be a surprise to see him there on Sunday afternoon.
Retief Goosen: Pretty dismal results this year, but he had a good Masters, and he finished second here last year. He needs a win more than his countryman Els does.
Davis Love: He’s won here twice. He definitely knows how to play this course. The problem is that he’s not due to win his next Players’ until 2014.
Rory Sabbatini: His big mouth got him into trouble on Sunday when he was paired with Tigger at Quail Hollow. He desperately needs a little redemption, because no one believed his “I screwed up” speech on Sunday afternoon.
Steve Stricker: Playing better than he has in years. He’s been knocking on the door this year, and after Fred Funk won two years ago, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see an older player have a late-career revival. Stricker’s the best candidate for that to happen.
Vaughn Taylor: Didn’t collapse in front of the home crowd at Augusta. Provided his buddy Zach Johnson with the support system he needed during that final round there. A win here could do for him what it did for Adam Scott. He can definitely win this one if the chips fall right.
Nick Watney: Before he won in New Orleans, he was better known as one of Michelle Wie’s playing partners. Outstanding young player, great swing, a real treat to watch. I don’t expect him to win here, but he’ll do well.
Mark Calcavecchia: The old dog has a little life left in him. Won at Innisbrook, which plays similar to Sawgrass. Guaranteed not to wilt under pressure. He’d love to have that five-year exemption that would carry him over to his debut on the Champions Tour.
All that being said, I have to choose a winner. The last few years have shown a pattern of second-tier guys raising their game, especially guys who have something to prove. Adam Scott showed that he was ready for prime time. Fred Funk showed that he was still as steady as ever. Stephen Ames showed that he could come back from a mental hit that would paralyze most golfers. I’m also eliminating anyone who’s already won this year, because there are too many players lately who have a Players’ as the only victory of the year on their card. I have three candidates in mind who fit perfectly. Don’t be shocked if Paul Casey or Camilo Villegas is your winner on Sunday, but I’m not going for them. When in doubt, pick the guy who lives in Chicago…
Winner: Luke Donald
Winning Score: -9
Margin of Victory: one stroke
See you next month for the US Open.