In act three of the Players Championship, TPC Sawgrass showed no mercy

May 14, 2017

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – People are talking about the prospect of Jon Rahm winning the U.S. Open next month. Maybe he will. But he’s not going to win the Players on Sunday. In Saturday‘s not-too-thrilling moving-day action, the Spaniard put his Lexus courtesy car in reverse, stepped on the gas and carded a front-nine 42. He followed that with a back-nine 40. The longest hitter in the field, or close to it, was not able to break 40 on either nine, on a day that really was just…fine.  

And yet it was a day that scores in the 40s were commonplace. Ben Crane birdied the last for a back-nine 44. That’s eight over for nine holes. He was topped. Canadian David Hearn went out in 45, with a snowman on nine.

Maybe you played on your high school golf team. You shot 45 and were happy, right? Even fives! But the 82 players who made the cut at the Players are all among the best players in the world. Breaking 40 for them is supposed to be (pretty much) a given.

Consider the front-nine 40 Tiger Woods shot in the first round of the 1997 Masters. It’s famous to this day because it was such a weirdly high score for somebody that good at golf.

Saturday at the Players, nine-hole scores of 40 and higher were ordinary occurrences. With 82 players, there were 164 chances to break 40. And there were 28 nine-hole scores of 40 or worse.

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Consider the cards of these two name-brand golfers. Paul Casey went out in 40. Justin Thomas came home in 42. Good thing they weren’t playing together in one of those unpleasant, strangely popular “worst-ball” competitions. They worst-balled (counting the higher of the two scores on each hole) for 82.  

They should feel no shame. Lee Westwood went out in 40. Matt Kuchar went home in 43. They managed a better-ball 70. For two touring pros? That’s ridiculously high.  

Of course, you can’t keep good golfers down. There’s a pride factor, for all of them, and only two players were unable to break 40 on either side. One was Rahm, with his 82, the day’s high score. Then there was Hearn, with his 45-35, grind-it-out 80, eight over par. Kuchar really had only one disaster, the par-4 14th, where he took nine swipes, with two balls in the water, one from a trap and a holed four-footer to avoid 10.  

Triples and quads are common enough, for us and for them, that there’s an established shorthand for these ghastly totals. You could not say the same of the quintuple bogey. Have you ever heard anybody, let alone the No. 18 player in the world, say, “I made a quint on 14?” No, you have not. Kuchar did not make the only quint on Saturday. Chez Reavie made a quint 9 on the par-4 fourth en route to a front-nine 40. Before his SNMN&1 (Stadium Course scorecard to the first person who figures out that vanity plate), Reavie was contending in this event. Then came his quint. He’s had worse holes. (He once made a 12.) Kuchar’s 9 is now his new high. He came to the Players with three 8s, a testimony to his golfing intelligence and doggedness.  

Vijay Singh played the first two rounds in 70 and 68, which pulled him to six under and within three shots of the 36-hole lead and a prime spot on the leaderboard. On Saturday, he went out in 41 on his way to oblivion, 2017 Players-style. Singh is not close, at all, to Phil Mickelson, but they did share something on Saturday, ignoble though it was: Mickelson shot a front-nine 40. Dustin Johnson came home in 40. And he’s the best golfer in the world.  

But all the names mentioned here—these guys—they’re good, right? So when the best golfers in the world shoot crazy-high scores, and the weather is fine, there is really only thing to blame: the course. That is, the design of the course, the grass upon it, the placement of the tees and the pins. Really, it was a good day for golf. Yes, it was breezy at times. But it wasn’t like the wind was Beaufort scale 4. Or even close to it. It wasn’t like there were whitecaps on the ponds. There were ripples, and sometimes not even that.  

When this event was played in March, as it was for years but not since 2006, there were some nasty, cold windswept days where you would see actual chop on Pete Dye’s high seas. But that was not the case on Saturday.

The course is so difficult it is amazing the status it enjoys. GOLF Magazine ranks it No. 29 in the U.S. There is surely a sadistic element among the raters. At Pinehurst No. 2, at Bethpage Black, and at the South course at Torrey Pines (to cite three other highly-ranked big-event open-to-anybody courses), your garden-variety 18-handicapper playing the appropriate tees has a good chance of playing the course with a single ball. That is unlikely to happen at the Stadium Course, aka TPC Sawgrass.

But the gents playing on TV are not us. So what happened on Saturday? In these answers, you’ll find something for everyone.  

Jon Rahm: “I had five putts in the first four holes—and I was three over par.” Translation: Everything else was bad.  

Dustin Johnson: “It definitely started to play a little tougher there at the end. The wind picked up and it was really blowing pretty hard.” Something has to explain his back-nine 40.  

Rory McIlroy: “It dictates to you where you have to—you can’t really dictate how you play it. It sort of makes the decision for you.” To some people, that’s about the most damning thing a person can say about a golf course.  

Pat Perez: “It’s a hard course. Doesn’t fit my eye on almost any shot, like everybody else. That’s how it was designed. So you know who loves it? Maybe the winner on Sunday? That’s about it. It was designed to penalize you and challenge you and that kind of stuff and that’s what it does. It makes it uneasy for you. There’s not a shot out there that I’m comfortable hitting.”

And he shot 66.