PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — This is a golf tournament, The Players Championship, that has more angles than a Hercule Poirot movie. One year it’s the wind. Another year it’s the rain and the wind, and another year it’s the hard greens, or the rough. But since the powers of the PGA Tour have been able to switch the dates from soggy March to glistening May, happiness has taken hold. No more over-seeded greens, no more mud balls, which Tiger Woods deplored. “We caught mud balls all the time [in March],” he said, drawing from his memory bank.
But, just like the fleas on a dog and gnats in the summer South, two nagging haggles aren’t going away. The Players will never become a fifth major, no matter how gracefully it ages. One of the leading world-class players, Geoff Ogilvy, from Australia — and probably the best player not American — referred to it in a news conference the other day as “the best tournament in the world, not a major,” and never blushed. Nor did it set off a raging debate. The world turned on, and the Kingdom of Finchem never flinched.
The other nagging matter, the 17th hole, a hole with no fairway, is either the major attraction, or the major reason this TPC Sawgrass course would never be considered for major status. It’s more of a gimmick than a golf hole. It belongs at the county fair, where you tee it up and if you hit your ball inside the circle, you win a fuzzy doll, or a Ferris wheel ride.
Oh, it’s exciting stuff. That’s where all the gang gathers, clustered along the banks from morning until the last tee shot is struck. One television camera is trained on it all day long so the gluttonous patrons won’t miss a single calamity. They got double their money’s worth Thursday, when Steve Lowery, the portly Alabaman, went for an eight. I don’t know if there ever has been a higher number, but if so, I never saw it. Lowery dunked his tee shot, took his drop and plopped the next on the walkway to the green — something I’d never seen before — whacked that shot in the water, and by the time he was done, he had a fat “snowman” on his card. After which, he waved gregariously to the cheering gallery and waddled off, on his way to an 81.
It’s as exciting as a devilish curve on a race track, but without fatalities. Actually, it was a soft number Thursday. Twenty-eight birdies were made there, at last count, and only four “Others.” That is, catastrophic numbers, such as Lowery’s. As the day rumbled on, more bogeys developed on the first hole than 17. It was the combination of a narrow fairway and thick Bermuda rough that took its lineup of victims. For all that, only one double-bogey developed there, that by Scott McCarron, two-time winner of the now-stricken old Atlanta tour stop.
A string of names uncommon to Tour leaderboards began springing up as the shadows lengthened. Scott Verplank led off, followed by young John Mallinger; Richard S. Johnson, a Swede; Alex Cejka; Jonathan Byrd, of neighboring St. Simons Island; and at the bottom of the list, a player named Brad Adamonis, ranked 300th in the world. But, this is early, like the first reel in an old movie.