PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- All you need to know about the Players Championship can be learned from the color coding on the pressroom scoreboard.
Birdies are recorded with red numbers, eagles stand out with red numbers on bright yellow backgrounds, pars are boring gray and bogeys are an embarrassing bright blue. Then there are the dreaded others, double bogeys and worse, shown on big black squares with white numbers cowering in the middle.
The Players scoreboard is annually peppered with a lot of red and gray and a disturbing amount of black. I haven’t done any scientific research on this subject, but I’ll go ahead and say it: few courses yield more eagles and birdies AND double bogeys and megas than the Stadium Course and Augusta National.
It’s no doubt sacrilegious to mention a TPC track and the home of the Masters in the same sentence. As courses go, they couldn’t be much different. The National is hilly enough to be a great toboggan run and beautifully lined with cathedrals of pines and assorted flora that remind us the place was once a world-class exotic nursery. The Stadium Course is dead flat except for designer Pete Dye’s sculpted green complexes -- it was originally a swamp, after all -- and lined with palms and palmetto bushes and scrubby trees that aren’t going to win any beauty contests.
Their respective back nines are straight out of video games, with lots of water, sloping greens, risk and reward. You can make a 2 at the National’s par-5 15th, as Gene Sarazen once did, or you can dunk two approaches in the pond and make a 9. You can finish eagle-birdie-chip-in-par and win The Players as Craig Perks did in 2002, or you can make 8 at the island-green 17th as contender Len Mattiace did in 1998, or even 12, as Bob Tway did in 2005.
Sometimes, you can see a disaster and a miracle just seconds apart. Fred Couples splashed his tee shot in the water at 17 in 1999 and then knocked his next tee shot in the cup for what you could call a hole-in-three. Adam Scott, on the verge of winning in the 18th fairway in 2004, yanked his approach left and into the drink, and then got up and down with a clutch putt to salvage a win.
Thursday at The Players was a chamber-of-commerce day, sunny and warm with not much of a breeze by Florida standards. Yet the scoreboard was littered with black squares even before the afternoon wave of golfers had made the turn.
“The challenge of playing a Pete Dye course is interesting, I use the word awkward,” Nick Faldo said in a pre-tournament chat with writers.
Brandel Chamblee, Faldo’s stablemate and an analyst for Golf Channel, added, “When you play a Pete Dye golf course, it’s just an awkward four or five hours.”
Sometimes, but not always, awkward can be good in golf course design. It works at the Stadium Course, and no matter what you think about the island-green 17th hole, it ranks among the three most famous holes in golf. Awkward doesn’t work so well at another Dye design, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, which will host the PGA Championship in August. It has lots of dunes and deep bunkers and forced carries in a location, next to the Atlantic Ocean, that is notoriously windy and should require low, wind-cheating shots. You can look forward to plenty of fear and loathing in August for the PGA.
But big numbers are part of the modern game.
Take Kevin Na, who took a 16 on a par-4 last year during the Valero Texas Open. He was a surprisingly good sport about it, and this year left the golf shirt he wore the year before on a hanger in the trees where his troubles began. He also took a chain saw to one of the trees for a PGA Tour video.
On Thursday morning at the Stadium Course, Na left another hanger in a tree after lighting up the back nine. He started on No. 10 and made birdie before adding birdies at 12, 13, 15, 16 and 17. He turned in 30, six under par.
But in a freak occurrence on the first hole, one of the few at Sawgrass that doesn’t have water in play, Na’s second shot lodged in a tree. Because he couldn’t identify the ball, he had to take a penalty for a lost ball and made a double-bogey 6.
“It doesn’t happen very often, but it happened today,” Na said. “We called an official, he had binoculars out, but you couldn’t really see it. It was wedged in somewhere.”
Shaking the tree to bump the ball loose or climbing it weren’t options. “It was a pretty big tree,” Na said. “I asked for volunteers to climb up it, but nobody spoke up.”
Na proved you can find trouble anywhere on this course.
Andres Romero, in the second group off the tee Thursday morning, had a one-under par round going until the finish. Then he put up black squares at 15, a double-bogey 6 , and 18, a triple-bogey 7. He struggled after hitting the monster fairway bunker at 15 and put his drive into the water left at 18.
“It’s not an easy course, you have to hit shots,” Na said. “You have to commit, and if you don’t pull off a shot, there are a lot of high numbers out there. But if you’re on and you’re playing well, you can separate yourself from the field. That’s the great thing about this course.”
The first three threesomes to tee off on No. 1 Thursday combined to make 11 double bogeys or worse for the day. That’s impressive considering two of the nine players, Blake Adams and Michael Thompson, didn’t contribute any. Adams made five birdies in a row on the front nine and shot 66. Thompson, competing in his first Players, eagled the par-5 11th and shot 68.
The guys who weren’t so lucky were ex-Ryder Cupper Jeff Overton, who made back-to-back doubles at the sixth and seventh holes and splashed a tee shot in the water at the par-3 17th for another. He shot 78.
Baird took doubles at the seventh and eighth; he needed a penalty drop after an errant drive at No. 7 and took two to hack onto the green after missing the green left at No. 8, a long par 3. Cameron Tringale had a pair of double bogeys also but salvaged a 73.
“I can’t think of a shot or a hole where I just go, Oh, I can relax here,” said Ben Crane, who shot 67. “It is a grind out there. You can make up ground on the last few holes, but you can also lose a lot of ground. Augusta National is the one course where you need the most experience, but I would put this course right after that. There are some places you just cannot go.”
They usually involve water. John Huh made 8 at the par-5 11th and Jerry Kelly made 8 at the par-4 fifth, but no one had a more ominous-looking black square on the board Thursday than former Masters and U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera.
He dunked his tee shot into the lake at the 17th, then hit two more in the water from the drop area. He eventually tapped in for a 9. He parred the 18th and shot 43 on the back nine (he’d also doubled the 11th) for a total of 78. After the round, he withdrew for “personal reasons.” For Cabrera, it was Black Thursday.
You can go low at the Stadium Course. Ian Poulter posted 65 and nearly a third of the field was under par. You can also go very high. Jerry Kelly turned in 82, and three players shot 80 -- Y.E. Yang, Tom Pernice Jr. and D.J. Trahan.
Watching golf here never gets boring. Just like that course they play in Georgia every April.