If you could watch only nine holes of tournament golf for the entire year, which nine would you choose?
You'd want to see the best players in the world, a challenging course, and hours of drama that lasts until the final putt drops on the 18th hole. The back nine of Augusta National is an obvious answer, but I've got another venue in mind: the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, site of this month's Players Championship.
However you feel about railroad ties and island greens, the Stadium Course has an uncanny knack for creating thrilling finishes. It's a special layout whose mix of risk-reward holes creates a blend of anticipation and drama unmatched by just about every major venue. That the Players returns to Sawgrass year after year, just as the Masters does to Augusta, also serves it well. Fans know the holes and where players need to make a move or simply hold on for dear life.
When Phil Mickelson tees it up on the par-5 16th at the Stadium Course, viewers know he can make eagle. They also know he's got one of the game's toughest short shots coming up on the island-green 17th, depending on the conditions. These are the scenarios we look forward to seeing. The Stadium Course, again like Augusta, creates excitement because it rewards players who are both aggressive and creative.
I understand the value of holding the biggest events at the biggest, burliest courses; the USGA, for example, has a standard setup that it likes to use to determine its Open champion. So why not design a course that does just that? The USGA should build the ultimate U.S. Open test and conduct the championship there every year.
The PGA Championship could do the same thing. That way, fans watching from home would become more familiar and engaged with the venues. The British Open doesn't have this problem because it has fewer courses in its rota, but I'd be fine with a St. Andrews Open every year, and I suspect most golf fans would, too.
I also understand the argument that organizers like to visit the game's classic courses and move the majors around the country. But in my opinion, building a special U.S. Open or PGA Championship course makes a lot more sense than mucking up the designs of some of the great old tracks simply to accommodate today's bombers.
Somewhere along the line, people started confusing difficulty with quality, and difficulty alone became the test of a championship course. That philosophy has had a detrimental effect on both recreational golf and golf at the highest professional level.
If you want to see players face possible humiliation and disaster, hole after hole, at unfamiliar courses, then the status quo is fine. But for me, the most important ingredient for a stirring championship is a well-known, well-designed course that offers players a chance to show their ability and create shots instead of being forced to merely survive.
By that standard, the Players Championship is an exemplary and exciting test of championship golf.