I am more famous – 10 times more famous – for finishing second at the 2008 Players after a brief playoff with Sergio García than for anything else I’ve done in golf, and that includes winning the Bay Hill Invitational and the Sony Open in Hawaii, and shooting a 59. For six months after that playoff, I’d be stopped in airports and people would say, “I was really rooting for you against Sergio.” The NBC interview with Bob Costas that week helped my fame factor a lot. If Costas is going to ask me a clichÃ©-ish question like “How did you sleep last night?” he knows what answer is coming – or thinks he does – so I gave him an answer that people would remember: “On my side.”
Dead Men Walking
Because of the water, the island-green 17th hole doesn’t have the intimacy of the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale, but it does have the same crowd – corporate people in their suites and loud drunks who want to be the center of attention every eight minutes. The 17th is like the Colosseum with Romans and lions and helpless victims, except it’s a par-3 golf hole.
I’m not a Pete Dye fan. Architects make golf too hard for the average player, and I think it shows. But with the 17th Dye did a fantastic job of getting in players’ heads. It’s all about the walk around the water hazard from the 16th green to the 17th tee. It’s like walking a gantlet. You have way too much time to think. The reality is that the 17th is only an eight- or nine-iron shot to a decent-sized target. It’s not that hard. But because of that trek, your anxiety has time to build to DEFCON One. It’s one of the great walks in golf.
The year I lost to Sergio, I was the first guy and the last guy in the water at 17 because I had started the opening round on the back nine early on Thursday. I didn’t hear about my “feat” until one of the writers pointed it out. Thanks for that.
Some said starting a playoff at a 137-yard par-3 was hokey, that the Players should have a three-hole playoff at 16, 17 and 18. I disagree. Starting at 17 meets the criterion of sudden death – it’s sudden, all right. Seriously, I’d much rather play the 17th versus Sergio than the 16th or the 18th. Sergio is a better player tee to green, and those are a long hitter’s holes. At 17, I’m on a pretty even platform. In fact, if I had my choice of where to start a playoff, I’d pick 17.
You think about 17 all week. You can’t help it. The drama starts building when you’re playing 16. Watch how many guys who are walking to the 16th green look 100 yards to their right to see what’s happening at 17. I’ll tell you how many – most of them.
I’ve never viewed the 17th as a scary hole. I know I shouldn’t say thisÂ – it’ll be a total jinx – but I’ve probably made as many birdies (16) there as anyone. I’ve only hit it in the water a few times. At least eight holes at the Stadium course bother me more than the 17th.
My first memory of TPC Sawgrass is when Jerry Pate jumped in the lake when he won in 1982 after he had already pushed Tour commissioner Deane Beman and Pete Dye into the water. I’m not jumping into the water, period. Catching dysentery doesn’t seem like a great way to celebrate. I don’t get that. Jumping into the water is what you do when you three-putt the last green to lose. Have you ever been at a golf course where you saw the water in a lake and said, “Boy, I wish I could swim in there”? No. I try to stay away from the water at golf courses as much as possible. I don’t even like the drinking fountains. They usually look suspect.
There isn’t a better closing stretch in tournament golf than 16, 17 and 18 at Sawgrass. You can see players finish 3-2-4 or Â6-6-6. The Players is definitely not over until the champion has it on dry land at the 17th, no matter how big his lead is. On a windy day it’s like the PGA Tour’s old slogan – anything’s possible.
The 17th hole is fun to talk about, but it’s nowhere near the hole that gets me the most puckered. The hardest hole for me is number 1. It’s only 392 yards, and if you hit a good tee shot you have a short iron to a tough green. The problem is, I can’t see the fairway. I know it’s out there somewhere, but I have a hard time finding it. On the 1st tee I feel like Indiana Jones looking for a lost relic.
The tee shot on number 6 is the scariest shot on the course. You have to hit underneath a tree limb. You feel as if you’re teeing off through a tunnel. The next shot isn’t much fun, either. There’s a big tree on the right side that seems to be in your way no matter where you drive it. I’m pretty sure somebody moves that thing around.
The finish on the front nine is stronger than dirt. The 7th is a tough driving hole; the 8th is a billion-yard par-3; and the 9th is a par-5 that only a few guys can reach in two. That’s why I like this course for the Goydos and Jim Furyk types, guys who aren’t big hitters.
This Old House
I don’t remember the old clubhouse very well, even though it has only been five years since they bulldozed it. You went up a stairway to the back door, there was a crow’s nest and an area for player dining. What I do remember is that back in the day, the Players was the only nonmajor televised on Thursday and Friday. You could sit in the locker room before your afternoon tee time and see what clubs other guys were hitting on 17. Now you do that at every tournament.
The new clubhouse is big [77,000 square feet] and grandiose, which NBC reminds you of every time they show it from the blimp. You can definitely get lost inside. To get from the locker room to the caddie area on your way to the practice range, you have to walk through a subterranean maze. It’s like the hallway from the opening credits for Get Smart, minus the big doors slamming shut. That hallway is called the Walk of Champions because there are paintings of all the winners of the Players. I occasionally think about how close I came to having my own painting. At Bay Hill you get your own banner for winning. They hang them on signposts along the entrance road to the course. I look for mine every year. It’s a nice reminder.
One of my great Players moments came on a Friday when the tournament was still in March. I was paired with Kevin Sutherland and sniped one into the trees on the 2nd hole. There was some pampas grass on my follow-through. I swung my six-iron; it plowed into the grass. I looked down, and the shaft was bent. Wow. At number 10 I blocked a drive way right. It was a six-iron shot, but now I didn’t have a six-iron. So I hit a five-iron. I looked down – the shaft was bent. So now I was without a five- or a six-iron. Great. I was hanging around the cut line. At 16 I drove it into the first pond off the tee. How many pros have done that? Even the World’s Worst Avid Golfer hit it over that pond, I guarantee it. I pull-hooked a drive, it hit a tree and went backward 50 yards into the water. I made bogey and now needed two pars to make the cut. I got the first one at 17. At 18 I didn’t want to leave myself a five- or a six-iron approach, obviously, so I hit three-wood off the tee. Except I accidentally lace-hooked it around the corner. I was between clubs – exactly between a five and a six. Unbelievable. Well, I was never going to get there with a seven-iron, so it had to be a four. I moved the ball back in my stance, pretended there was a tree in front of me and flew the ball about 120 yards. While the ball was in the air, I heard Kevin say, “What the hell are you doing?” I told him, “I’m out of clubs.” The ball rolled the last 50 yards and stopped eight feet from the cup. I two-putted and made the cut on the number.
When the Players was in March, it had an identity problem. It was just a tune-up for the Masters – not for me but for the top players. It’s good that we got away from that. In the early ’90s I never liked the idea that because Greg Norman and Nick Price didn’t play the West Coast swing, the Tour season really started at Doral. As a West Coast guy, I thought that was a bunch of you-know-what.
The Sawgrass Marriott next door, where most of the players stay during the tournament, is interesting, especially since it went to bankruptcy court awhile back. They have some one- and two-bedroom condos on the far end. I suggested that they should put all the players in there, seal it off and make it like an Olympic Village. Everyone else could use the actual hotel. No one thought that was a good idea, probably Marriott most of all. Not many people know you can take a boat from the Marriott to the 13th tee during the tournament. Really. There’s a boat dock by the pool behind the hotel; it’s like the Disneyland ferry that goes to Tom Sawyer’s Island. It docks left of the 13th tee, you get off and go watch golf. I’ve never been on it, and unless we have a shotgun start and I tee off on 13, I probably never will.
Sorry, Commissioner, there are only four major championships. The fifth major is a nice little catchphrase, but it’s not accurate. Yes, the Players is the fifth most important tournament in men’s golf. It’s simply not a major. The Players is a notch below the majors, but it’s a good couple of notches above everything else. It’s a solid No. 5, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Dealing with the media is kind of a game, but you have to play it. Last year Jim Gray corralled me after I had made a 9 at Pebble Beach. Fine. So he asks, “You made a 9, what were you thinking?” I said, “Well, two weeks ago I made a 9 on a par-3. This week I made a 9 on a par-5. I think I’m getting a lot better.” By the way, anybody seen Jim Gray lately?