PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.(AP) Even with the strongest field in golf, The Players Championship is among the few tournaments where the biggest star is the golf course.
The Stadium Course on the TPC Sawgrass has a personality all its own.
Sure, it is renowned for its island green on the par-3 17th, perhaps the most notorious short hole in golf where players have hit 312 balls in the water over the last five years alone. But the shot is only 137 yards, a wedge for most players.
The winning score has ranged from a record 24-under 264 by Greg Norman in 1994 to 3-under 285 by David Duval in 1999.
The list of champions is as impressive as any – Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Nick Price, Fred Couples – yet no one has ever repeated as champion.
It can look easy. But it can play hard.
A small sampling of players in the days before The Players Championship showed how complex this place can be. They were asked to describe the TPC Sawgrass in one word.
“Exciting,” offered three-time major winner Padraig Harrington, the only player to be runner-up in consecutive years. “What I mean by that is that it’s not a big brute of a course with long, boring par 4s. There’s quite a lot of short, tricky par 4s out there. And there’s a lot of intimidating shots. A lot of water. It’s a course that’s exciting at all times.
“Even without the players this week, it would be an exciting event.”
The Players Championship did not have Woods last year, the No. 1 attraction in golf, and there was excitement aplenty. It ended with a sudden-death playoff – the first playoff to start on the 17th hole – and Paul Goydos promptly hit his tee shot into the water.
“Tricky,” is the word chosen by Woods.
His record is most peculiar. Woods was runner-up in 2000 to Hal Sutton, then won the next year over Vijay Singh. But he has not cracked the top 10 since then, his longest such streak of any PGA Tour event. He has never led after any round in any year except for when he rallied to win on a Monday in 2001.
The Stadium Course does not discriminate, offering winners who are power players (Woods, Norman, Couples, Mickelson) or short hitters (Fred Funk, Lee Janzen), stars (Price, Duval, Davis Love III) or unheralded winners (Craig Perks).
Only eight of the champions at Sawgrass have failed to win a major.
Most people consider The Players Championship as the fifth major, which is why Steve Stricker used “challenging” for his word.
“It not only challenges you physically, but it challenges you mentally,” he said. “It’s like a major. There’s no letup on any hole. On every single shot, you have to be committed.”
Sergio Garcia is the defending champion when The Players Championship begins Thursday, its 28th consecutive year on a course designed by Pete Dye and often described as “Dye-a-bolical,” for the punishment the course metes out on whim.
Goydos earned more notoriety for his playoff loss than any of his two PGA Tour victories, in part because of his everyman personality that served as such a contrast to Garcia’s illuminating career.
Some debated whether starting a playoff on the 17th hole was fair or done purely for promotional purposes, but the guy who paid the steepest price had no qualms.
“There’s no advantage to any one player,” he said. “All tour players pretty much are standing on that tee equal. You can look at a hole like 16 or 18 and you say there’s an advantage to a guy who hooks the ball. Seventeen doesn’t favor anybody.”
His word to describe the course?
“Surprising,” he said. “When you look at each hole individually, it really shouldn’t be that difficult. It’s just that each hole is designed to the point where if you make a mistake or get out of position … in trying to get back into position and trying to be aggressive from that point, it tends to kind snowball away from you.”
Phil Mickelson called it “interesting.” Zach Johnson said it was “all-encompassing.” Retief Goosen called it “dramatic.”
Harrington never feels comfortable on the Stadium Course, and he pointed to the island-green 17th as the consummate hole to define the character of the place.
“It’s not a difficult birdie, but it’s a very difficult par,” he said. “It’s a strange game on this course that there’s a lot of holes that if you play them well, you get rewarded. And if you play them badly, you get punished.”
Of course, no survey would be complete without the wisdom of Boo Weekley. His one-word description?
“Flush,” Weekley said.
“Yeah, flush” he said. “Because you’ve got to hit it pure, or you’re going to want to flush it down the toilet.”