PGA Tour Confidential: Players Championship Preview

PGA Tour Confidential: Players Championship Preview

With its man-made water hazards and railroad-tie banks (here on the 17th), the Stadium course is artfully artificial.
Fred Vuich


Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The Stadium course, is it a classic modern venue or is it overrated?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think it’s fantastic. There are so many shots out there and so many great holes. Pete Dye was way ahead of the game when he built this course.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: It was a very unpopular course with players for the first 10 or 15 years.

Anonymous Pro: Two reasons I like it. One, every shot has a value. There are no gimmes, no freebies. From the first tee shot on, it’s a full test. And two, we hold the tournament at the same place every year, like Augusta, and you never get bored playing this course, also like Augusta.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I love the course because it forces players to be on the money with every club. The guys who win absolutely control their ball better than anyone else. Whether it was Greg Norman’s 24 under or Davis Love III’s final-round 64 or Phil Mickelson’s first win after working with Butch Harmon, each of those guys played at a higher level that week.

Anonymous Pro: He’s right. There’s no room for error on any hole. The par-5s aren’t even necessarily birdie holes. Nine is a hard hole. Two is awkward. Sixteen can be a get-back hole, but you have to be careful on the second shot. The 11th is fraught with danger. Every hole can jump up and get you.

Van Sickle: I’m not a fan of modern architecture. I don’t like sculptures. Old courses simply look natural. New courses don’t have greens, they have complexes. The sharp edges, the perfectly rounded lakes — it’s so artificial. I will say though, when I finally played it, the Stadium course was better than I thought.

Shipnuck: Of course it’s the most manufactured course ever. It was a swamp. It’s utterly a creation. That’s what makes it amazing. It required so much imagination to build.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It shouldn’t be on any list of the world’s great courses, but by modern course standards, it’s very good. For one thing, you can actually walk it, which is often not the case. For a really good player, it’s a very good test. For a duffer, it’s too long, there’s way too much water and the greens are too tough. For the Players, it works beautifully, and that 17th hole is genius.

Van Sickle: The island green has been called a gimmick. I liked Brandel Chamblee’s description: Pete Dye ruined a perfectly good lake.

Garrity: I think it’s a great TV golf hole. Without the crowd and color and excitement, it’s a contrived disaster hole.

Shipnuck: I agree. It’s good fun, and it has given the Players an identity.

Hack: I like the 17th, controversy and all. The players’ bellyaching through the years makes me laugh. It’s a short iron to a green the size of the Millennium Falcon. Fellas, the 18th is harder by a mile.

Garrity: It’s a great finishing stretch, and what a setup for the 72nd hole. There’s so much emotion after you get past 17, then you get on the 18th tee and you’re facing an even scarier shot.

Shipnuck: The 16th is an eagle opportunity, or you can hit it in the water and make a big number. Then you have to play 18 after you’ve been staggered by a few blows at 17. Those three holes are a cohesive finish, a crescendo.


Van Sickle: Sergio Garcia, the defending Players champion, seemed resigned to a bad week at the Masters and then criticized the course afterward. What’s up with that?

Shipnuck: Sergio said his goal was to make the cut at Augusta. Dude, you’re Number 3 in the world. Aim a little higher. Even for Sergio, that was a bad mood. I asked a Spanish reporter at the Masters about why Sergio was so mopey. The writer said, “I think your word is brat.”

Anonymous Pro: If you’re going to complain about something at Augusta, you can’t complain about the greens. They’re perfect. We don’t play better greens all year. If you’re going to complain about greens, complain about the bermuda-grass greens at the Stadium course. They’re too inconsistent for a great championship.

Garrity: Am I the only one who thought there was a little psychic damage done when Sergio missed that short birdie putt on 17 in the playoff against Paul Goydos? It didn’t matter with Goydos in the water, but I thought it was a negative that might bang around in Sergio’s skull.

Shipnuck: I don’t know that it was meaningful, but it was symbolic. Sergio is the poster boy for guys who have been beaten down by Tiger. There is only a five-year difference in their ages, so Sergio knows that Tiger is always going to be there and be better than him. It’s taken away a lot of his fighting spirit. When Sergio talks about Tiger now, he’s kind of sarcastic, like, Oh, we can’t all be Tiger Woods. He has serious Tigeritis.

Van Sickle: To me, Sergio sounded like a guy who has hit rock bottom with his putting, maybe some form of the yips, although I hope not. If you can’t putt, Augusta National is the worst place to be in the world. And if you can’t putt, you can’t play golf and you get despondent.

Garrity: Are we talking about Sergio or Charles Barkley?

Bamberger: I’d hate to see Sergio think himself out of a major. Lee Trevino should have won the career Grand Slam, except he had such a poor attitude about playing Augusta — These people don’t want me, he’d say. The course doesn’t suit my fade. Of course Trevino could turn it over when he needed to. I didn’t think Sergio’s quotes were that bad. It’s more worrisome that a guy under 30 is going back and forth between the long and short putter.

Hack: Every time I think Sergio has matured, he pulls a stunt like this. To have that outburst on a week when so many thoughts were with Spanish great Seve Ballesteros, who is fighting brain cancer and sent Jose Maria Olazabal a note to be read at the champions dinner, smacked of complete selfishness.

NO. 1 AND NO. 2

Van Sickle: What did that thrilling Sunday round at Augusta do for Phil and Tiger going into the Players? Where are they now?

Garrity: Phil created a ton of excitement out there. Going into that round, everybody was taking bets that, playing with Tiger, Phil would wilt. Tiger steps up and hits the first tee ball a hundred yards left. Phil did all the miracle stuff. He didn’t complete what might have been the greatest comeback in a major, but he came close. Of those two guys that day, Phil was the one who had more magic.

Shipnuck: It cuts so many ways. Phil was kind of buoyant leaving the grounds. He trumped Tiger by playing one of the greatest nine holes in golf history. The thing is, Phil played as well as he could play, Tiger played terribly, and Phil beat him by only a stroke.

Garrity: That’s what is so exceptional about Tiger. He is the greatest player in the history of golf even without his A game.

Bamberger: Tiger is so obviously the man. For him to shoot 68 when he has no clue what he’s doing with his swing is amazing. He still produces a score. Phil had to play out of his mind to shoot 67. Things go awry for Tiger like they do with all golfers, but no one figures it out quicker than Tiger. Let’s not worry about Tiger on the basis of his not winning the Masters. Let’s not forget what he did two weeks earlier at Bay Hill.

Shipnuck: I think Tiger felt a new emotion on the course at the Masters — embarrassment. That opening tee shot on Sunday was so wretched even the most mentally tough player of all time had to have been spooked. It was the biggest round Tiger has played at Augusta in years, and he could barely keep his ball on the planet. It was more than a little humiliating, and it must’ve hurt his feelings to feel the crowd’s allegiance surging to Phil.

Anonymous Pro: My gosh, Tiger is hitting duck hooks now. On Masters Saturday he hooked one on number 9 that rattled around the trees like a pinball. He used to only hit a block. Now he has a two-way miss. His swing is too flat and too much behind him. His left wrist is so bowed, with the club face so shut, he’s got to hold on for dear life. If he releases the club at all, it’s a duck hook. I never thought I’d say it, but Tiger needs a chain saw now to play Augusta. He’s so good, he still had a chance to win, which is amazing, but he can’t use his athleticism to save his swing forever.

Garrity: I haven’t been a huge fan of Tiger’s latest swing mainly because I thought what he had before, in 2000, was pretty damn great.

Van Sickle: Back then he was hitting about 70 percent of the fairways under Butch Harmon. Now he’s hitting 57, 58 percent. That’s a big drop for a club that was once Tiger’s most fearsome weapon. It reminds me of Dean Martin in the cheesy Matt Helm spy spoof from the ’60s, The Silencers. He had a gun that shot backward, so when he got caught and the villain tried to kill Matt with his own gun, the villain shot himself. That is not unlike Tiger’s driver at the moment.

Anonymous Pro: Phil is still a train wreck waiting to happen. In Houston he proclaimed that he has the best driver he’s ever had and that he bombs it straight. So why did he practically hit it off the media building on the 1st hole twice in Augusta? I’ve said it before: Phil is too caught up in power and hitting it far. Look at the 18th hole on Sunday. If he makes birdie there and posts, who knows? That hole is custom-made for his three-wood. He could hit it 285 yards with his usual draw, take the bunkers out of play and have eight-iron in. Instead he pounds a big hook with his driver into the trees. That’s a lack of discipline and poor decision-making. By the way, Kenny Perry never should have hit driver there either. I heard later that Bones [Mackay], Phil’s caddie, wanted him to hit three-wood, but Phil grabbed the driver and said, I’ve got it. He had it, all right—right in the pine straw.


Van Sickle: If any event cried out for a three-hole playoff more than the Masters with its Amen Corner, it has to be the Players with 16, 17 and 18. Last year’s playoff, starting on the 17th, a hole where they hit wedges, didn’t feel right. It reminded me of the Merrill Lynch Shootout chip-offs they used to have on Tuesday afternoons at Tour stops.

Garrity: I completely understand why they did it. The 17th is the most famous hole in America. It makes for really compelling television. Another great par-3 playoff was the Mercedes Championship at La Costa, when Tiger Woods stuck it close to beat Tom Lehman. I like the British Open four-hole extra set, but with this, one swing and it can all end right there. And it pretty much did last year with the Paul Goydos dunk. Plus, the fans are already there and waiting in an amphitheater setting. The more I talk about it, the more I like it.

Shipnuck: Starting a playoff at 17 is like a porn movie. Do you want a plot to go with the action or do you want the people naked in the first frame? That’s what the playoff was like — no waiting.

Van Sickle: Alan, I haven’t heard a more brilliant closing argument since Matlock. You win, I’m switching sides.

Bamberger: For a serious championship you need a significant playoff. To start on a par-3, that’s a joke. Sudden death is way too random. The one place it works is Augusta National. They don’t pretend to identify the best golfer. They have a tiny field, a quirky course and crazy, severe greens.


Van Sickle: What’s ahead for the two players featured in the final act of the Masters, Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera?

Anonymous Pro: This is going to be way harder for Kenny to get over than the ’96 PGA he lost. He had the Masters right in front of him. He flinched on a chip, then hit bad iron shots in the playoff. That’s not his game at all. Kenny won’t be haunted by only one shot there, he’ll be haunted by the whole last 45 minutes.

Shipnuck: I saw Kenny on Sunday night as he was leaving Augusta National with his family, and they were gutted. It was sad. Missing the cut at the Players would be no surprise. He has to be spent.

Garrity: I was predicting Kenny would have a nothing year because he invested so much in last year and the Ryder Cup. Instead, he has played even better than last year.

Shipnuck: Yeah, but Kenny admitted that he has the chip yips. He’s never going to be in contention again and not think about it. That is some serious scar tissue.

Van Sickle: It probably means he’ll win only four times this year. He’s Kenny Perry, man of the people now.

Garrity: I think Cabrera will have a Laura Davies kind of career. He’ll never be a disciplined, superconsistent golfer and win with his B or C game. He can play under intense pressure, though. I remember in ’07, on that long par-5 on Sunday on the back nine at Oakmont, he absolutely booms a drive and the ball is rolling like it’s on skates. He came off that tee twirling his driver and apparently whistling. I started taking him seriously precisely at that moment.

Anonymous Pro: Angel is a mystery. We don’t see him much, and we don’t talk to him much, other than pleasantries. He’s a great iron player, length is not an issue and he hits it as well as anyone. His game rises and falls with his putting, kind of like Sergio’s. Angel might miss the cut at the Players and disappear for a year. Or he might win by six.


Anonymous Pro: I’m going with my old standby, Jim Furyk. If he doesn’t play well this week, I’m never picking him again. This is his home track. He wants to win, and right now, after a disappointing Masters finish, I think he wants it more than anybody else.

Garrity: Robert Karlsson contended in all the majors last year and became a significant force on the European tour. He’s a heck of a world-class player, so why not make the Players his first pseudomajor?

Hack: Sean O’Hair had a second at Bay Hill and tied for 10th at the Masters. He’s playing well and went toe-to-toe with Mickelson in the ’07 Players before adrenaline-aided mistakes did him in at the 71st hole. His ball striking and toughness are improving.

Van Sickle: This course has always been about control, especially the tee shots. You can’t overpower the Stadium course. I’ll strike while the Popsicle stick is still hot, as the cliche goes, and choose Brian Gay. After a Gay romp at Harbour Town, he convinced me that he has taken his game to a new level.

Bamberger: Pat Perez is long, a great iron player and tough under pressure. I’m surprised when he doesn’t contend, just as I am with Stephen Ames, whose swing looks like it could go all day and not make a mistake. I’d pick Tiger, but that’s the easy way out.

Shipnuck: You’re right, it’s easy. I’m picking Tiger, even though his Stadium course record is relatively ho-hum, because he had so much red-ass coming out of Augusta, he’s probably been digging trenches on the Isleworth range. Tiger is keen to shifts in public perception, and he’s surely aware that people are now questioning his swing, his allegiance to Hank Haney and even the sturdiness of his knee. He’s always looking for a little extra motivation. Winning the Players would prove a lot of people wrong, which is one of his hobbies.