Lee Janzen knows what pressure feels like, having twice stood on the 72nd tee with the U.S. Open on the line. It’s the same feeling he had in 1995, when he arrived at the final hole of the Stadium course on Sunday with the Players Championship in his grasp. All Janzen had to do to win was make a par on the infamous 18th at TPC Sawgrass, the 462-yard par-4 that has water flanking the entire left side of a narrow ribbon of a fairway that hooks to the left.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been as nervous as I was there,” says Janzen, who won the Open in ’93. Still, he scratched out the necessary par. “It was big,” says Janzen (who would win another Open in ’98) of his Players triumph. “A great resume builder.”
Everything about next week’s Players is big — the pressure, the course, the finishing holes, the quality of the field, the hype, the clubhouse and, of course, the purse, which is a supersized $9.5 million, with $1.7 million going to the winner.
Correction. Everything about the Players is big except the anticipation in the minds of the players. You’re not on the level of a major championship until players start looking ahead to your event a couple of weeks in advance — as they do with the Masters, which was all anyone wanted to talk about in the years when the Players was held in late March, two weeks before Augusta. “There was a lot of Augusta talk there then, like a cloud over our tournament,” says Tour veteran Joe Ogilvie. “Believe me, the green jacket reached all the way down into Florida that week.”
But last week the Players was not on the minds of the competitors at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, played in breezy, balmy weather on the firm and fast fairways of the TPC Louisiana. The Zurich turned out to be a buddy act. Steve Stricker, who had already shot a 67 to move into the top 10 (tied for seventh) and had showered and changed into jeans
and sneakers, stood by the grandstand behind the 18th green to watch his good pal and fellow Wisconsinite Jerry Kelly try to earn his first Tour victory in seven years. Thanks to some mistakes by Charles Howell, who coughed up the lead with four holes to go, and slipups by Rory Sabbatini, Charlie Wi and Steve Marino, all that stood between Kelly and victory was two putts and 15 feet.
“I’m nervous for him,” Stricker said, fidgeting while he watched. After Kelly’s shaky first putt came up short, Stricker asked, “That’s only two feet, isn’t it?” It was, and, finally, Kelly rammed home the winner. Stricker and Kelly, who both live in Madison, had played nine holes together in a practice round on Tuesday of tournament week; later Stricker helped Kelly work on his putting. That Kelly ranked second with the flat stick in New Orleans was no accident, as well as a big reason for his win.
“Steve has always been a great friend to me,” said Kelly, who is 42. After he came off the 18th green, Stricker gave Kelly a big hug in the tunnel beneath the stands and walked him to the scoring area with an arm around Kelly’s shoulder.
As for the Players, it may not come into full focus until after this week’s Quail Hollow Championship, where both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will tee it up.
The Tour gave up calling its flagship event golf’s fifth major years ago. “The Players is the fifth-most-important tournament,” says Paul Goydos, last year’s runner-up at Sawgrass. “Calling it the fifth major is like saying [any horse race] is the fourth leg of the Triple Crown. There isn’t one.”
Building tradition takes time, and while the Players continues to evolve and improve, it should be accepted for what it is: “A Tour event on steroids,” says Scott Verplank. In other words, it’s big and getting bigger, but last week that didn’t mean much to two buddies from Wisconsin. For them, nothing felt grander than winning in the Big Easy.