Change is good

Change is good

may24_sawgrass18_299x299_0.jpg
Dye added an extra bit of undulation to the green at 18, already one of the toughest holes on Tour.
David Walberg/SI

Saturday is called Moving Day on the PGA Tour, but that tired
cliche should be DQ’d after what happened last week.

Nothing
against Jeff Quinney or Sean O’Hair, who rocketed up the leader
board during the third round of the Players Championship by shooting
scores of 64 and 66, respectively, but their excellent play was a stroll
across the street compared to the $60 million move — from March to May — made by the tournament. So, was the switch a success? Here’s our two cents.

The Name The PGA Tour needs to make up its mind. The event is called the Players
Championship in some places and simply the Players in others. We like the Players,
period. It’s snappier, like Diddy instead of Puff Daddy.

The Date When it was played in March, the tournament was overshadowed by NCAA
basketball and spring training. In early May the Players comes after the Kentucky Derby, before the Indy 500 and in the
middle of the endless NHL and NBA
playoffs. Perfect.

The Weather When Tour commissioner
Tim Finchem met with reporters last
Wednesday, it was pouring outside,
thanks to subtropical storm Andrea.

“Welcome to sunny, dry, warm Florida,”
said Finchem, achieving a personal best
for humor.

On Thursday the wind gusted
up to 39 mph. Maybe the Tour should
have checked with Al Gore before inching
closer to the start of hurricane season.

The Buzz Many writers used to spend
Players week asking the pros about the
upcoming Masters. Last week they were
asking about the upcoming U.S. Open.
Also, there was a strange lack of energy.

“The tournament seems different, and
I’m not sure why,” said Kevin Sutherland,
who has played in 10 Players. “It’s
not two weeks before the Masters anymore,
when everybody was gearing up.
Before, this was like the first week of the
year, when all the best golfers got together
and there was a sense of excitement.
Now, I don’t know. . . . “

The Infamous Island Green The famed
17th is more than simply the Players’ signature
hole — it’s become the tournament’s
identity. Tiger Woods called the
hole “gimmicky,” but hey, it’s been called
worse. Although a record 50 balls were
hit into the water on Thursday (92 for
the tournament), there were no major
drown-outs to match Bob Tway’s alltime
high 12, set in 2005, possibly because
somebody had the sense to grow a deeper
fringe at water’s edge. Nevertheless,
at the wee (137 yards) par-3 there were
more scores of 6 and above (16) than
there were birdies (12); and bogeys or
worse outnumbered birdies by a 5-to-1
margin.

“It’s a mental thing,” says Kirk
Triplett, explaining the carnage. “We used
to sit in the clubhouse and hear the odd
story about a guy making a 7 or an 8.
Now with that stupid online camera at
17 on all day, you’re way more conscious
of that hole.”

The upshot: The 17th is still
the best show at TPC Sawgrass.

The New Grass Course superintendent
Fred Klauk always had the Stadium
course in tip-top shape, but it would get
soft and muddy when it rained. The date
change solved that problem. Previously,
to ensure that it would be green during
tournament week, the course had been
overseeded with rye grass. That’s no
longer necessary because the underlying bermuda grass has come in by May.

Plus, all the organic material that had
built up over the years was scraped off
the fairways in a process that could be
described as the face-peel of all time.
The fairways were capped with sand and
a new strain of bermuda, which make
the course firm and fast — the way designer
Pete Dye intended. The players
raved about the new grass and the end of
mushy fairways and mudballs. Mud
makes shots squirt off-line, and at a
course with as many water hazards as
Sawgrass, that’s not good.

“The rye retained
so much moisture (that) you’d hit
a shot to the greens and see a crater of
mud,” says Stewart Cink. “You don’t see
that with this bermuda. The ball almost
never breaks the surface. It simply dents
the grass. I’m digging this stuff.”

The New Greens The bermuda putting
surfaces were slightly slower than last
year’s bentgrass models. Woods lamented
their lack of speed, but Mike Weir
praised them after Thursday’s windswept
round.

“If the Tour hadn’t spent
the money, it would’ve been unplayable
today,” Weir said. “(During my round)
the ball was oscillating. On the old bent
greens the ball would’ve been blowing
around. My ball actually rolled forward
on the 17th green anyway, and I had to
re-mark it.”

The Hole Story Tee boxes were moved
back on the 1st, 8th, 14th and 18th
holes. The 467-yard 14th played downwind
all week, so nobody complained,
and the added length made the tee shot
at the 447-yard 18th straighter and
therefore easier. The front portion of the
12th green, too sloped to be usable in
previous years, was flattened and thus
improved. The three pot bunkers added
to the right side of the 442-yard 7th hole
snared Phil Mickelson, among others,
and had players aiming away from
them, bringing the water on the left
more into play.

The Surprises Dye, who oversaw the
changes, added a few sneaky twists, including
a deep grass bunker in the rough
on the 1st hole and a new slope on the
front-left portion of the 18th green.

“There’s a little dipsy-do on the last green
that wasn’t there before,” says Triplett.
“Any play from the right side to a front
pin, you can chip it in the water in a
heartbeat.”

On Saturday, Steve Elkington
did exactly that and made a double
bogey that took him out of contention.

The Lovebugs Sawgrass’s Plecia nearctica
Hardy, which hatch in May, is the
new unofficial mascot of the Players.
Last week the insects were fluttering
ineptly through the air, usually attached
to another (hence the name).

“I played
with Greg Owen,” said Paul Azinger,
“and he was waving the bugs away and
saying, ‘Get out of here! Go shag somewhere
else!'”

The Bottom Line The May date is a
keeper, but there are still a few bugs to be
worked out.