With the possible exception of the Old Course at St. Andrews, there isn’t a big-league ballpark on earth that elicits a higher volume and broader assortment of opinions than TPC Sawgrass, home to The Players Championship since 1982. Any negative perceptions of Scotland’s seaside sandlot, the game’s authentic birthplace, are largely the offspring of naivete. Despite its lunar appearance and anachronistic qualities, St. Andrews is a gem of marvelous simplicity. Golf’s rendition of the genuine article.
Sawgrass could not be more different. It was designed with the world’s best players in mind, a grueling test derived from the mind of Pete Dye and the vision of Deane Beman. It’s as artificial as artificial gets, more manufactured than fake, a 7,245-yard obstacle course full of bells, whistles and stuff that makes tour pros bristle.
If a piece of land could lack a conscience, it’s located right down the street from PGA Tour headquarters in northern Florida. Forty years of carnage have ratified Sawgrass’ reputation as a beast—and the dire importance of imposing a stout challenge on those who play the game at its highest level.
The guys who shoot 75 will always complain about unfair setups and demanding conditions. It’s an essential postscript to stinking up the joint. Let ’em gripe, for crying out loud. It’s professional golf, not the B flight at the club championship. About half of all Tour events are little more than slow-pitch softball games with much better pay, contested at venues either no longer capable of demanding supreme skill or never were.
Sawgrass, meanwhile, has become the unofficial centerpiece of the toughest five-week stretch the big boys will encounter all year. It began at the final stop of the West Coast swing in Los Angeles, where Riviera played easier than usual but still yielded a modest total of 12 72-hole totals of 10-under or better. Ten was the winning number at the Honda Classic, where 2-under was good enough for a share of seventh.
You saw what happened last week at Bay Hill. Difficult-course specialists such as Scottie Scheffler and Tyrrell Hatton should be getting more than eight or 10 tournaments suited to their style of play over the span of an entire season. Mean Street comes to an end next week at Innisbrook, which has proven time and time again that it has all the muscle you could ask for from a Tour venue.
It’s hard to believe the tournament in southwest Florida was booted to the Fall Series just a few years ago before the brass at Camp Ponte Vedra wisely reinserted Innisbrook into the starting lineup. Not everything has to be about title sponsorship and charity bread. It’s the golf that matters, heaven forbid, and when the fellas are teeing it up for somewhere between $7 million and $10 million, is it too much to ask for a bit of club-slamming against the bag after some overmatched sucker makes his third consecutive bogey?
Hard golf is sexy, man. If I wanted to watch a putting contest, I could drive down to the Sports Authority and watch Ted battle Wilbur for five bucks on that giant green mat of polyethylene.
The fine men who oversee the Tour’s on-site field staff are more than happy to define the reality of the hard vs. easy factor. There might be two dozen tournaments held at places that simply can’t be customized to penalize players for things like missing fairways by 20 yards or busting a driver on every hole that isn’t a par 3. Not only has the latest equipment enabled them to play competent shots from anything less than burly rough, they consider it well worth the risk to think distance now and deal with any potential problems a few minutes later.
It’s commonly known as bomb and gouge. Some people think it’s the death of golf, but some people still haven’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, either. Besides, chicks dig the longball, which is why Bryson DeChambeau and plenty of others are such a hoot to watch, but in this age of uncompromised power and lost course-management skills, the purists keep wringing their hands.
Is it the end of the world as we know it? Perhaps, but that world keeps on spinning and a Tour victory is now worth seven figures nearly every Sunday. That’s what makes this five-week span of taxing venues such a precious commodity. It requires quality length off the tee and imparts more emphasis on putting defensively when the situation calls for it, which makes precision with the irons a lot more valuable.
If it happened every week, we’d probably get a little spoiled, but then everybody would find something else to moan about. What happened at Bay Hill last Sunday was par golf at its most riveting. Every swing of the club came with consequences. Every player in contention knew that hanging on would allow them to remain in the hunt. Instead of the usual succession of 100-yard sprints, the final round turned into the longest mile.
May the best man win. And with each passing month, Scheffler is looking like he’s one of the better men out there.
The Players Championship never has been or will be golf’s so-called fifth major, but it’s a huge deal with its whopping purse and Tour-infused prestige. Camp Ponte Vedra starts promoting the event long before the previous Christmas, which is a more than a bit of overkill, but there’s noting wrong with a mighty empire beaming with pride over a tournament that has grown up to become a 40-year-old stud with bulging biceps and a true sense of what this blessed game is all about.
It’s supposed to be hard, you silly fool.