Nick Watney strains to see his ball on the second green at TPC Sawgrass. The penalty of missing greens at The Players Championship is so severe that even players with great short games struggle.

Who will play well at Sawgrass? It's a guess

Published: Thursday, May. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 2C
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 9, 2013 - 7:57 am

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship should consider changing the name of its course to the TPC Mystery.

The reason The Players is talked about as the next best thing to a major is because the field is the strongest and deepest in golf. Anyone who tees it up at TPC Sawgrass has as good a chance as the next guy.

The mystery is trying to determine whose game best suits the golf course.

The list of winners is impressive, though it doesn't offer concrete clues except that two-thirds are major champions. More curious is how infrequently some of the game's best players are even in the mix late Sunday afternoon.

Start with Tiger Woods.

He was runner-up in 2000 to Hal "Be the right club today" Sutton. He won in 2001 with that putt on the island-green 17th that was better than most.

And that's it.

He tied for 10th one year and finished eighth another. Woods has played the tournament 15 times in his career, and he was at the height of his powers for more than half those years, when he could fall out of bed and contend. But at Sawgrass, he's had only two serious chances at winning.

"There's no course that less people have worked out than this one," Geoff Ogilvy said. "You get one or two chances in your career and you take them. It's a tournament Tiger has played 15 times and he's only contended twice. There's something odd there. Maybe that's the genius of the golf course. Or maybe that's the flaw of the golf course."

But it's not just Woods.

Phil Mickelson has won 41 times on the PGA Tour, second only to Woods in the past 25 years, with four major championships. He won The Players in 2007. And that was the only time he seriously contended at Sawgrass.

Vijay Singh, with 34 wins and three majors, was runner-up to Woods in 2001. In his 19 other appearances, he didn't finish higher than eighth.

Ernie Els, another four-time major champion in the Hall of Fame, hasn't sniffed winning The Players.

Those are the "Big Four" of their generation. That's a collective 72 appearances, two wins and four chances at winning.

Why? "No idea," said Padraig Harrington, who has ideas on everything. "I'm not sure how you would put it down. You pick four players, and it's not like all four have the exact same game. Only four chances between them?"

Johnny Miller didn't have much luck at Sawgrass, making only two cuts in eight attempts. It was enough to give him an appreciation of Pete Dye's creation.

"It's just a nervous tournament. It's a nervous week," Miller said. "That's why a lot of guys hardly do well here. It's a course that you have to tippy-toe around. You just get a little glimpse of it once in a while when you can play well, and the rest of the time it just eats your lunch."

There are examples of top players who do well at The Players. Davis Love III, one of the game's best in his prime, won it twice. So did Fred Couples, and he had a couple of top fives. Both also have had plenty of weekends off at Sawgrass. But this is not a course they own, not the way Love owned Hilton Head or Couples had Augusta National and Riviera.

Americans would call it "quirky." British players would call it "fiddly."

A universal word might be "unpredictable."

The objective a few years ago was for players to define the golf course in one word. The choices ranged from dramatic to demanding, from thrilling to uncomfortable. Said Ogilvy: "Annoying."

It can be that for the best of them.

While power is always an advantage in golf, length is not a big issue here. And the key to Sawgrass starts with getting the ball in the fairway. After that, it's a guessing game. Some say a great short game is critical. Others would say the penalty of missing the greens is so severe that not even the best short game can save you.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Doug Ferguson



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