Change is good

Friday May 25th, 2007
Dye added an extra bit of undulation to the green at 18, already one of the toughest holes on Tour.
David Walberg/SI

Saturday is called Moving Day on the PGA Tour, but that tired cliche should be DQ'd after what happened last week.

\nNothing against Jeff Quinney or Sean O'Hair, who rocketed up the leader board during the third round of the Players Championship by shooting scores of 64 and 66, respectively, but their excellent play was a stroll across the street compared to the $60 million move — from March to May — made by the tournament. So, was the switch a success? Here's our two cents.

\nThe Name The PGA Tour needs to make up its mind. The event is called the Players Championship in some places and simply the Players in others. We like the Players, period. It's snappier, like Diddy instead of Puff Daddy.

\nThe Date When it was played in March, the tournament was overshadowed by NCAA basketball and spring training. In early May the Players comes after the Kentucky Derby, before the Indy 500 and in the middle of the endless NHL and NBA playoffs. Perfect.

\nThe Weather When Tour commissioner Tim Finchem met with reporters last Wednesday, it was pouring outside, thanks to subtropical storm Andrea.

\n"Welcome to sunny, dry, warm Florida," said Finchem, achieving a personal best for humor.

\n On Thursday the wind gusted up to 39 mph. Maybe the Tour should have checked with Al Gore before inching closer to the start of hurricane season.

\nThe Buzz Many writers used to spend Players week asking the pros about the upcoming Masters. Last week they were asking about the upcoming U.S. Open. Also, there was a strange lack of energy.

\n"The tournament seems different, and I'm not sure why," said Kevin Sutherland, who has played in 10 Players. "It's not two weeks before the Masters anymore, when everybody was gearing up. Before, this was like the first week of the year, when all the best golfers got together and there was a sense of excitement. Now, I don't know. . . . "

\nThe Infamous Island Green The famed 17th is more than simply the Players' signature hole — it's become the tournament's identity. Tiger Woods called the hole "gimmicky," but hey, it's been called worse. Although a record 50 balls were hit into the water on Thursday (92 for the tournament), there were no major drown-outs to match Bob Tway's alltime high 12, set in 2005, possibly because somebody had the sense to grow a deeper fringe at water's edge. Nevertheless, at the wee (137 yards) par-3 there were more scores of 6 and above (16) than there were birdies (12); and bogeys or worse outnumbered birdies by a 5-to-1 margin.

\n "It's a mental thing," says Kirk Triplett, explaining the carnage. "We used to sit in the clubhouse and hear the odd story about a guy making a 7 or an 8. Now with that stupid online camera at 17 on all day, you're way more conscious of that hole."

\n The upshot: The 17th is still the best show at TPC Sawgrass.

\nThe New Grass Course superintendent Fred Klauk always had the Stadium course in tip-top shape, but it would get soft and muddy when it rained. The date change solved that problem. Previously, to ensure that it would be green during tournament week, the course had been overseeded with rye grass. That's no longer necessary because the underlying bermuda grass has come in by May.

\nPlus, all the organic material that had built up over the years was scraped off the fairways in a process that could be described as the face-peel of all time. The fairways were capped with sand and a new strain of bermuda, which make the course firm and fast — the way designer Pete Dye intended. The players raved about the new grass and the end of mushy fairways and mudballs. Mud makes shots squirt off-line, and at a course with as many water hazards as Sawgrass, that's not good.

\n "The rye retained so much moisture (that) you'd hit a shot to the greens and see a crater of mud," says Stewart Cink. "You don't see that with this bermuda. The ball almost never breaks the surface. It simply dents the grass. I'm digging this stuff."

\n\nThe New Greens The bermuda putting surfaces were slightly slower than last year's bentgrass models. Woods lamented their lack of speed, but Mike Weir praised them after Thursday's windswept round.

\n"If the Tour hadn't spent the money, it would've been unplayable today," Weir said. "(During my round) the ball was oscillating. On the old bent greens the ball would've been blowing around. My ball actually rolled forward on the 17th green anyway, and I had to re-mark it."

\nThe Hole Story Tee boxes were moved back on the 1st, 8th, 14th and 18th holes. The 467-yard 14th played downwind all week, so nobody complained, and the added length made the tee shot at the 447-yard 18th straighter and therefore easier. The front portion of the 12th green, too sloped to be usable in previous years, was flattened and thus improved. The three pot bunkers added to the right side of the 442-yard 7th hole snared Phil Mickelson, among others, and had players aiming away from them, bringing the water on the left more into play.

\nThe Surprises Dye, who oversaw the changes, added a few sneaky twists, including a deep grass bunker in the rough on the 1st hole and a new slope on the front-left portion of the 18th green.

\n"There's a little dipsy-do on the last green that wasn't there before," says Triplett. "Any play from the right side to a front pin, you can chip it in the water in a heartbeat."

\n On Saturday, Steve Elkington did exactly that and made a double bogey that took him out of contention.

\nThe Lovebugs Sawgrass's Plecia nearctica Hardy, which hatch in May, is the new unofficial mascot of the Players. Last week the insects were fluttering ineptly through the air, usually attached to another (hence the name).

\n"I played with Greg Owen," said Paul Azinger, "and he was waving the bugs away and saying, 'Get out of here! Go shag somewhere else!'"

\nThe Bottom Line The May date is a keeper, but there are still a few bugs to be worked out.

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