PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – America first!
OK, in point of fact, here at this 46th playing of The Players, an Englishman, Tommy Fleetwood, the Holy Father his own self, is playing spectacular golf. And, yes, we Statesiders would love to claim Jason Day, as he has now spent more of his life in Florida and Ohio than he has in his native Australia. But he’s Aussie, and he surely hopes to be in an International uniform in December, when the Presidents Cup is played at Royal Melbourne.
But how about Brian Harman, knocking loudly with his blood-and-guts left-handed play?
How about that Jim Furyk, at 48!? Also known as Mr. 58, for a score he shot in the Hartford tournament, in 2016. The 64 he shot in the second round here on the Stadium Course is not quite in the class of that 58, but it was pretty darn close. TPC River Highlands is a par-70, for the fellas. The Stadium Course here is a far more demanding par-72. Furyk, who lives down the street from here, made nothing higher than 4, went out and home in 32, did it with the same swing he had in 2009 and 1999 and 1989, and with the same caddie (Mike Cowan) he’s had for 20 years now. No question about his nationality. He was, after all, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain six short months ago. That job comes with a citizenship requirement.
One stroke behind Furyk is Kevin Kisner, native son of Aiken, in South Carolina, where he lives today. Seeing those two names – Furyk and Kisner – way north on the leaderboard is further proof of something Nick Price said a long time ago: if you want to bunch the fields, make the courses shorter. This is a weird thing to consider, but Augusta National could take a page from the Stadium Course that way. “It’s not overly long,” Kisner said. “I’m not hitting 4-irons into all these par-4s, into these [tiny] sections. That seems to be the new trend on Tour.” A pair of 68s — how you like them apples?
One of the odd things about Furyk’s round is that he was playing with two guys who were going high, Paul Casey of England (78-74) and Satoshi Kodaira of Japan (74-76). It’s not easy, going low when they’re going high. Next week, Casey defends his 2018 victory at the Tampa tournament, where he finished a shot ahead of Tiger Woods last year. Woods won’t be at the Valspar this year, which is kind of a shame, because his presence there last year, and his good play, made for one of the most exciting Sundays on the PGA Tour’s B Schedule in forever.
So, yes, some of your name-brand Americans will not be around Sawgrass this weekend. Poor Jordan Spieth. When his round was over on Friday, he and his golf bag and his caddie, Michael Greller, retired to the baronial locker room here, sat on a cushioned bench and stared for several long and silent minutes at their cellphones. Ditto for Zach Johnson. Phil Mickelson, who opened with a 74, went double-double on 3 and 4 on Friday afternoon. He was ambivalent about coming here, has some off-course distractions and was needing some miracle golf to make it to Saturday here.
Here is Mr. Keegan Bradley, born in Woodstock, Vermont, 32 years ago, who is six under through 36 holes, walking arm-in-arm with his bride post-round, in the mix here, as he was after 36 holes last week at Bay Hill.
Here is Mr. Patrick Reed, born in San Antonio 28 years ago, strolling through the locker room with his shirt tails out after a long day in the office.
One of the most interesting things this weekend will be to see if Bradley can keep it going. Everybody’s favorite 2011 PGA Champion is on the comeback trail, here in March of this newish year. He opened 67-68 last week, on a very demanding Bay Hill course, and played in the last group on Saturday, paired with Fleetwood. Bradley’s weekend scores sent him into oblivion. A 75 and a 78 will do it.
This week, at the Players, Bradley’s good weekday play is continuing. His inspired Thursday 65, which matched Fleetwood for the first-round best, was an incredible score, given the afternoon breezes through which he played. (Fleetwood caught a slightly easier course in the morn.) On Friday, Bradley’s card, 73, was more workmanlike, (good hit, no putt) but still solid. He’s trying to reclaim his status among the Tour’s elite players, and one of the elite American players, too. He was once both those things.
“I’m hitting it great, my swing feels great, I’m getting used to the new putter,” Bradley said. New putter and new putting. Anchored of course is out. He runs the shaft up his left arm. “I’m looking forward to the weekend.” He said that last week, but Bay Hill is in the books and the Players is wide open. Go team.