PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A corridor beneath the grandiose clubhouse is lined with black-and-white photographs from more than a quarter-century of winners at The Players Championship since it moved to the notorious TPC Sawgrass.
They have little in common except they beat the best field in golf and got very rich.
There is powerful Adam Scott, 23, and pea-shooter Fred Funk, 48, the youngest and oldest champions.
Hal Sutton captured this event twice, once as a svelte young man in his second year, later at age 41 with a paunch, sweat stains and five of the most famous words uttered on the 18th hole of the Stadium Course – “Be the right club today!”
Past champions feature the power of Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Fred Couples, the accuracy off the tee of Calvin Peete, grinders like Tom Kite, Lee Janzen and Justin Leonard, the pure ball striking of Nick Price, the short game of Phil Mickelson.
“It suits good players,” Paul Goydos concluded Wednesday. “If you show up here with your best game, you have a shot to win. I don’t think anyone walks out there and says, ‘I can’t play this golf course.”’
There are a few things about The Players Championship that fall into the death-and-taxes category.
-Woods has no chance of winning because he’s not here. He had surgery on his right knee two days after the first major, giving him time to recover before the second major, making his absence a setback for the tournament debated as the fifth major.
-Every player will watch anxiously until his tee shot on the 17th hole hits the island green, if it does.
-The winner will walk away with $1.71 million, more money than any other single tournament offers on the PGA Tour.
But making a sound prediction on which style of game the Sawgrass best suits is like spinning a roulette wheel.
“Everybody can play their own game on this golf course,” said British Open champion Padraig Harrington, twice a runner-up. “There’s a lot of different strategies. Probably the greatest thing about the course is you can watch a threeball (threesome), and they’ll consistently hit different clubs off the tee.”
Power is negated because everyone can reach the par 5s in two shots, except for the ninth hole, where the entrance to the green is blocked by a massive oak. And now that the fairways have been refurbished to allow for fast, firm conditions, the par 4s are all about position. Length really only helps on a couple of holes, such as the seventh and 14th.
“You can probably get away with probably three holes where you’d have to hit driver,” Lee Westwood said.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the variety of winners at The Players Championship is that Mickelson will try to become the first player in 35 years – this is the 27th year at the Stadium Course – to successfully defend his title.
Mickelson was asked why it has been so hard on defending champions.
“Until this year?” he said to laughter. “I don’t know. I have no idea.”
If anyone is a favorite at The Players, it would be Mickelson based on the trophy in his possession and his No. 2 world ranking. Of the top 25 players in the world at Sawgrass this week, only Mickelson and third-ranked Scott have won this tournament.
Not having Woods around helps only slightly.
“He’s giving us a little bit of a break at the moment,” said Scott, two weeks removed from a playoff victory in the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. “Still, there’s so many good players here this week that I think your percentages are only just a little bit better.”
Woods will be out at least until the Memorial, but he was rarely a factor at The Players. Since winning in 2001, he has failed to crack the top 10. There hasn’t been much buzz during the practice rounds, but there rarely is at a tournament that has yet to attract a national following like the four majors, something PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem hopes will happen over time.
The field, however, is considered the strongest in golf. Unlike the other four majors, which include amateurs, club pros or past champions approaching Social Security, everyone in the 144-man field is capable of winning.
In fact, 101 players in the field have won on the PGA Tour.
And in this age of golf courses being lengthened, the Stadium Course hasn’t required an overhaul to remain a test.
“When par times 100 is less than the yardage, it’s a relatively short golf course,” Goydos said. “And this is a pretty good course.”
It is a tough test, but not overbearing like a U.S. Open. Norman set the record in 1994 at 24-under par, which should be safe for quite a while, but that doesn’t mean Sawgrass won’t yield a good score to some good golf.
“No matter how tough the course is playing, you feel like if you get on a run out there, you can shoot a 65,” Harrington said. “There will be great scores shot on the course, but it’s hard to keep it going for 72 holes.”
It is such a unique design, beyond the infamous island green, that anyone can win. Not even the man who designed it – Pete Dye, selected Tuesday for the World Golf Hall of Fame – could explain why the roll call of champions is so diverse.
“That’s a secret,” Dye said, acting at first as though there was a clue stashed away in some vault. “If I tried to tell you, I’d just be lying. I haven’t any idea, to tell you the truth.”