As temperatures rose, scores hit some rare lows at the Players

May 8, 2009

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — When we left the Players a year ago, the wind was howling and so were the players. Those who didn’t break 80 outnumbered those who broke 70 by more than four to one. On that memorable bloody Sunday, the 40 mph gusts even blew the enthusiasm out of young Anthony Kim, who said he “wouldn’t wish playing in this on anybody.”

That Black Sunday seemed long ago and very far away on this calm, warm, summery day that we’ll call Red Thursday at the Stadium Course, since that’s the color the scoreboard was painted by an impressive barrage of birdies and eagles, one seldom seen in these parts. This won’t go down as the lowest scoring session in Players history but it was one fine day nevertheless.

“The course is playing fairly easy,” said Swede Richard S. Johnson, who shot 66 which tied with John Mallinger for low score in the morning draw and was good for second at day’s end behind Ben Crane’s 65. “If it ever plays easy.”

Easy is a relative term at the Stadium Course. There were still plenty of disasters and horror stories. Brian Gay, who won the Verizon Heritage in a runaway, took a nine at the par-4 fourth. The island green 17th’s victims included ex-Pebble Beach champ Steve Lowery, who dunked two shots on his way to an eight. Even the nondescript par-4 seventh elicited a quadruple-bogey eight from former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell. Ouch.

Overall, scores were good. David Toms is the first to admit his track record here isn’t all that heartening, but even he lit up the Stadium Course for eight birdies in his first 13 holes. However, Toms settled for 67 after a bogey-bogey finish. The moral: No matter how “easy” the Stadium Course is, it’s never so easy that there isn’t a seven waiting out there with your name on it.

“It’s an awkward course, I think everybody would say that,” said Toms. “I think the key to why I’ve played pretty well so far this year is my driving. I still throw in a bad drive here or there, but I feel good about my swing off the tee. As long as I can commit to the shape of the shot, I’ve been driving it pretty well.”

Three more days of quiet weather like this–and that is indeed what’s in the forecast–and we may wistfully remember those March dates when it was windy and rainy, and misery and suffering were a dynamic duo that was fun to watch, not fun to experience. Now that it’s May, this balmy week feels like the start of summer.

“It’s this humid when we play the Malaysian Open,” said international star Jeev Milkha (The Milkman) Singh, who posted a 68, “but [there] it would be another five, six degrees hotter. And more humid.”

Thanks for the weather report. Now, back to sports.

Crane, who played in the afternoon, had nine birdies en route to his 7-under 65. (Alex Cejka shot 66 to tie with Johnson and Mallinger).The world’s best players aren’t exactly lurking. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, for instance, weren’t among the top 25. Woods shot 71, one under par, and was tied for 38th place. Mickelson shot 73, despite being three under after his first four holes, and ended his round tied for 79th. He suffered five bogeys, including one after hitting his second shot into the water at the par-5 16th.

Woods had a decent day off the tee, missing only four fairways, but was simply unable to cash in. He eagled the 16th but managed only two other birdies. Once again the World No. 1 was hit by a wave of lip-out putts. Even by a conservative estimate, near-misses cost Woods half a dozen shots. “This was the highest score I could’ve shot today,” lamented Tiger, who didn’t hole a putt longer than four feet.

Defending champion Sergio Garcia had an odd day. Despite struggling badly of late, he birdied three of the first four holes. But Garcia struggled coming in and, like Woods, posted 71. Garcia was still searching for something in his swing. “It feels like I’m trying to steer everything to make it go the right way and it didn’t go the right way today,” he said. “The way I played, 71 is not that bad of a score but when you’re three under par and the course is playing the easiest it is going to play all week — if you play halfway decent, you are going to shoot 65, 68, 69.”

Garcia is right: It is difficult to imagine this course playing any more receptively than it did on Thursday. That’s why it was so costly not to take advantage of it.

Paul Goydos, the defending runner-up (your new Golf Term of the Week), had a tougher time than Garcia, the man who defeated him last year in a playoff. Goydos suffered a bogey-bogey-double-double stretch early on the back nine that ruined his round and led to a 78. “Time to go,” Goydos jokingly told reporters after a few minutes. “I hit too many shots out there. I’m very tired.”

Scott Verplank was among a posse of players at 67, five under. He holed a 150-yard shot for eagle at the 15th hole and then sank a 50-foot putt at the par-5 second hole for eagle. “I had two eagles in one round and I can’t remember doing that, probably ever,” said the short-hitting Verplank. “That always helps the scorecard.”

Nine birdies will usually do the trick, too. Crane’s finish surpassed his entrance. Because his wife had the car, he rode to the course on a friend’s moped. “How fast does a moped go?” he was asked. “About 30,” he said, laughing.

He should’ve said 32, his score on his final nine when he birdied four holes in a row, starting at No. 2. His round was also a surprise based on his recent play. Crane had missed three cuts in his last four appearances. Or, as he put it, “three of my last four events have been trunk-slammers.”

The only things slamming in his first round were his putts, into the bottom of the cups. He had 22 putts, and they covered more than 170 feet.

“It was just one of those days a golfer lives for,” Crane said. “I just tried to start the ball on line. Sometimes, you have a day like today.”

Yes, it was a rare day at the Stadium Course. Enjoy it while you can, gentlemen. Who knows what Friday will bring?