Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Players

The Players Championship: Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy face off in long battle for No. 1
The Players Championship: Five players to watch
The Players Championship: No. 17 hole at Sawgrass like ‘a 3 o’clock appointment for a root canal’

The Players Championship: Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy face off in long battle for No. 1

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. • Golf’s world ranking has been more like a game of musical chairs with the most turnover at the top in the 26-year history of the ranking. Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald would like the music to stop playing for good sometime this year, the sooner the better. And both want the same outcome.

"Hopefully," Donald said Wednesday, raising his hand, "it will be me."
McIlroy said the same last week at Quail Hollow, where his playoff loss at the Wells Fargo Championship was enough for him to return to No. 1 for the third time this year.

Donald has a chance to take it back from him this week at The Players Championship, which offers the most world ranking points of any tournament besides the majors. They already have taken turns at the top six times in the last 10 weeks. The last time the No. 1 ranking was even remotely this volatile was in 1997, when it changed seven times in 13 weeks among Greg Norman, Tiger Woods, Tom Lehman and Ernie Els.

The Players Championship is a rare occasion for them to get together. Already four months into the season, McIlroy and Donald have only competed in the same tournament four times: the Abu Dhabi Championship, two World Golf Championships and the Masters.

"I think the last couple of months have not been as exciting because Rory and I really haven’t been playing in the same events," Donald said. "I think that will change a little bit, and hopefully there will be some situations coming up in the next few months where we’ll be playing in the same tournament and both having a chance to win the tournament."

As for a clear No. 1, Donald said that can only happen by winning a major or multiple tournaments — along with the other players not playing well.

The ranking shuffle speaks to a broader issue in golf. No one ever talked about the world ranking because there was no debate about No. 1.

There was no parity in golf. There was Tiger Woods.

In the 18 months since Woods abandoned his post atop the world ranking, four players have been No. 1: McIlroy, Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. In the 30 months since injuries and the scandal in his personal life reduced Woods to an ordinary player, no one has won more than three times in a season on the PGA Tour. That used to be conridered a slump for Woods.

"Do I think it’s good for the game?" Woods said of the current state of golf. "I liked it when I was up there. That’s just me."

The edge going into The Players Championship belongs to McIlroy, the U.S. Open champion, based on consistency. Not only did he win the Honda Classic in early March to reach No. 1 for the first time, he has finished out of the top five only once this year. That was at the Masters, where he was one shot behind going into the weekend, closed with 77-76 and tied for 40th.

Donald, who got off to a slow start this year, has finished out of top 30 in five of his eight tournaments. He showed how determined he is to stay in the picture, though, by winning the Transitions Championship and rallying on the weekend to finish third in New Orleans.

Golf now heads into a time of the year where there will be ample opportunity for someone to establish himself as the clear No. 1, with The Players Championship, Memorial, Europe’s flagship event at Wentworth, followed by three majors and a World Golf Championship. If that’s not enough, Donald, McIlroy and Westwood — who at No. 3 also has a slim chance to get to No. 1 again this week at Sawgrass — are PGA Tour members and eligible for the FedEx Cup playoffs, which feature four strong fields at the end of the summer.

It all starts to unfold Thursday on a course that fittingly favors no one. The past winners on the Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass range from power (Woods, Norman, Phil Mickelson, David Duval) to precision (Tim Clark, Fred Funk, Hal Sutton).

McIlroy and Westwood skipped last year when they belonged to the same management company and were not PGA Tour members.

"It wasn’t one of my brightest moments," McIlroy said. "I’m glad to be back."

The Players Championship typically boasts the deepest and strongest field in golf, though it gets just as much notoriety from the course on which it’s played, particularly that island green on the par-3 17th that makes for great TV and becomes a smaller target depending on what’s at stake.

Missing from the field is Masters champion Bubba Watson, who has pulled out of the last two tournaments so he can bond with the baby boy he and his wife adopted in late March; Dustin Johnson, still recovering from a back injury; and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.

The Players Championship: Five players to watch


Ben Crane

Age: 36.

World ranking: 48

Players starts/cuts made: 7/6

Scoring average/low round: 71.69/65

Best finish: T4 (2010)

Might win because: He’s one of four members of the “Golf Boys,’’ and the other three (Hunter Mahan, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler) have all won in the past six weeks. Crane’s the front man, too, so why not here, in the PGA Tour’s signature event? (Calm down, the four majors aren’t run by the tour.) Crane has a solid Players record (he went T6, T5, T4 in 2008-10), and already has three top-10s this year. They came in his first four starts, though, and just three of his past 22 rounds have been in the 60s.

Graeme McDowell

Age: 32.

World ranking: 18

Players starts/cuts made: 4/4

Scoring average/low round: 71.80/65

Best finish: T26 (2010)

Might win because: He’s been very solid in his biggest tournaments this season: T3 in Abu Dhabi, T13 at Doral, second to Tiger Woods at Bay Hill, T12 at the Masters. On the surface, his T33 in last year’s Players seems ordinary. But he was the 54-hole leader (67-69-68), then imploded with a final-round 79. You know he’d love another shot at being in contention here. Plus, he’s been posting a lot of practice videos on Twitter recently, and it’s cool seeing a tour pro pounding range balls in shorts.

Martin Kaymer

Age: 27.

World ranking: 8

Players starts/cuts made: 3/3

Scoring average/low round: 71.42/67

Best finish: T19 (2011)

Might win because: A non-American has finished first or second at the Players in each of the last six years, and he’s as good a choice as any. Has a decent record at TPC Sawgrass, but has been derailed in the final round (78, 76, 72 in his three trips). Kaymer hasn’t played all that much this year: Just three starts each on the PGA Tour and European Tour, with a T9 his best finish. He’s also a combined 8 over in his past five rounds on the PGA Tour, never breaking par. He’s due for a big week.

Aaron Baddeley

Age: 31.

World ranking: 45

Players starts/cuts made: 8/5

Scoring average/low round: 73.23/66

Best finish: T6 (2011)

Might win because: He’s too good a player to be sputtering along like he has the past few months: two missed cuts, T40 at the Masters, T65 last week in Charlotte. Maybe a return to a venue he likes will do the trick. He owns two top-10s at the Players, and they’ve come in two of the past three years: T9 in 2009, T6 last year. He’d be the fourth Australian to win the Players, joining Steve Elkington (1991, 1997), Greg Norman (1994), and Adam Scott (2004).


Nick Watney

Age: 31.

World ranking: 23

Players starts/cuts made: 5/3

Scoring average/low round: 72.38/64

Best finish: T4 (2011)

Will win because: No American has won since Phil Mickelson in 2007, and Watney has the game to tackle TPC Sawgrass. He hits it long, keeps it straight, makes his share of birdies, and has gotten off to fast starts: 68-69-64 in his opening round at the Players the past three years. He led after 18 holes last year, but it was his only score below 71. Sluggish year so far, with just one top-10 showing in a stroke-play event. That came last week, when he led after 36 holes and settled for eighth. He’ll improve on that this week.

The Players Championship: No. 17 hole at Sawgrass like ‘a 3 o’clock appointment for a root canal’

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There is just no escape, no bailout, nowhere to hide. The potential for embarrassment looms with every shot.

There are better holes in golf, no doubt. There are tougher holes, a few shorter holes, holes that have been the stages for more history. But it would be difficult to find a more recognizable patch of grass anywhere in the world of golf than the island green at TPC Sawgrass’s 17th hole, where water sits as a danger front, back, left and right, and where what would seem to be a simple little shot – all of 137 yards on the scorecard – can become frightening.

The PGA Tour pros who arrived at the hole Thursday during the first round of The Players Championship likely aren’t aware that annually, 120,000 balls kerplunk into the four feet of water that surrounds the green. They might find it amusing that four times a year, the tour hires divers to clean the bottom of the lake of all those wayward shots, hit by hackers and scratch players alike.

“That golf hole makes you nervous even when you’re playing a practice round,” said former U.S. Open champ Johnny Miller, who will serve as an analyst this weekend on NBC. “I love nervous holes, and holes that you have to sort of anrwer to. It’s a fantastic hole.”

That is not a universally held opinion. Renowned architect Pete Dye gets credit – or in some minds, blame — for designing the island, and it is, whether he ever intended it to be, his signature work. The reality is, though, he didn’t dream it up that way. “It just kind of arrived,” Dye once said.

In order to build TPC Sawgrass, which former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman envisioned as a permanent host for the Players, dirt had to be extracted to fill in what was otherwise a sandy, swampy, 415-acre plot of land. The best dirt came from the area that was supposed to be the 17th, albeit with only a small pond nearby. Dye’s crew kept digging. And one day, his wife Alice – herself an accomplished player and designer – arrived on site and suggested the idea for an island. Fifty thousand cubic yards of dirt was hauled away, and the island green remained.

“It’s dramatic,” Tiger Woods allowed, judiciously.

When the Players is on the line over the weekend, and the bank to the left of the hole is packed with rowdy, beer-swilling golf fans, the leaders will have to step to the tee of an unusually short par 3, stare out over the water, and commit to a swing. Thursday, with the tees up and the pin at the front of a green that slopes dramatically from back to front – shortening the hole to 124 yards -- players faced a 9-iron or pitching wedge that, should it be short, would certainly be wet.

“You’ve got a backboard back there where you can hit it 15 feet all day,” Woods said, referring to the slope behind the pin. “But if you want to take a run at it, you bring water into play.”

Water is in play on every shot at 17, each day of the Players. Take Angel Cabrera. The two-time major champion arrived at 17 even par for Thursday’s first round. He put his tee shot into the water. He marched to the drop area, which sits 75 yards from the center of the green. He hit what was then his third shot into the water. He dropped again. He hit what counted as his fifth shot into the water. One final drop. He hit his seventh shot onto the green. Two putts from there and he had his 9.

Cabrera thus played the 17 longest holes at TPC Sawgrass in even par, and the shortest hole in 6 over. He proved, in one 15-minute span, what Phil Mickelson once said: “There’s no cap on how high you can go.” To date, the cap at the Players is Bob Tway’s 12 in the third round in 2005. Two hours later, Cabrera assured he wouldn’t challenge it. He withdrew from the tournament, citing “personal reasons.”

Such is the potential humiliation of 17.

“It’s like having a 3 o’clock appointment for a root canal,” longtime PGA Tour player Mark Calcavecchia said years ago. “You’re thinking about it all morning and you feel bad all day. You kind of know, sooner or later, you’ve got to get to it.”

And there’s no telling what the result might be. Louis Oosthuizen, who has a British Open title to his credit and lost in a playoff at this year’s Masters, came to 17 Thursday and immediately fell into a trap. “I was between clubs,” he said. A nice, easy 9 iron? Or perhaps step on a wedge? That speck of doubt crept in, his 9 iron came out, the water loomed all around. The ball hit the front edge of the bank and bounded back in.

“It proves,” Oosthuizen said afterward, “that a par 3 doesn’t have to be 200 yards to be a great par 3, a really tough hole.”

The hole is tough enough that some players, Woods included, would prefer it to be elsewhere on the course. “I think it’s a perfect eighth hole or something like that,” Woods said. The idea is that a player who, say, double bogeys there with one bad swing would have more time to recover.

But it is the signature hole at the PGA Tour’s signature event, and it isn’t going anywhere. Thursday, Woods and his playing partners, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan, came to 17, walked off the yardage and checked the wind. Each took a solid swing, Fowler to 12 feet, Woods then to 13, Mahan to just four.

“Some kind of strange things can happen on it,” Mahan said. The strangest yet? Three dry golf balls, and three birdies.

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