PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship has its own version of a Super Bowl media day.
For the last two years, the PGA Tour brings together all of its players who are competing for the first time on the TPC Sawgrass, and it was an eclectic group. One of them was Rory McIlroy, who turned 20 this week and already is No. 18 in the world. He was getting most of the attention, as he often does.
There was a Ryder Cup player, Oliver Wilson of England, who played across the street at Sawgrass Country Club when he was in college, but had never seen the fearsome Stadium Course until Monday.
Some of these rookies, such as Chez Reavie and Y.E. Yang, already have won on the PGA Tour.
Most of them have followed The Players Championship over the years because of what it is and where it’s played. It’s the closest thing to a major without being one – the strongest field in golf with a $9.5 million purse – and is played on the same course each year, one that is hard to forget with an island green and perhaps the most unpredictable closing stretch in golf.
First impressions can go a long way.
“The first thing that stood out to me is the green is much larger than it looks on television,” Kevin Streelman said of the island-green 17th hole, which can be the scariest 9-iron in golf.
Martin Laird of Scotland, who qualified by taking the 125th spot on the money list last year, even got nervous in practice.
“It’s obviously a great hole, and I was happy to get that behind me,” he said after playing it for the first time Tuesday. “You’re even a little anxious to hit your shot there in a practice round. Hopefully, I can hit four nice shots there during the week and not give anyone anything to talk about.”
They all reached the same conclusion, that the tournament rarely is with such a dynamic stretch of holes at the end – a par 5 at the 16th where the green can be reached in two if a player doesn’t mind the water down the right side; the island green for the 17th, where more tournaments have been lost than won; and water stretching down the left side of the 18th.
Even the veterans know that.
“The winner here will have to go through a lot of emotions coming down the stretch,” said Padraig Harrington, the only player to finish runner-up in consecutive years. “Probably until he hits his tee shot on 18 – actually, even the second shot, as we’ve seen – you’re not going to be comfortable on this golf course.”
It might be the hardest tournament to predict a winner.
Sergio Garcia is the defending champion, having won in a playoff last year when Paul Goydos put his tee shot into the water on the 17th. The Spaniard will try to become the first player in tournament history to win in consecutive years.
Tiger Woods is a favorite no matter where he goes. The Players Championship might be an exception.
Sure, the world’s No. 1 player captured this elite event in 2001, a year after he finished runner-up. Since then? They might as well call this the “Kryptonite Open” for golf’s version of Superman.
Woods has not so much as finished in the top 10 since that victory in 2001, his longest stretch out of the top 10 at any golf tournament in the world. In his last 24 rounds, he has broken 70 only five times.
“I haven’t hit the ball well here,” Woods said. “It’s very similar to a major championship. You have to have all the pieces. You can’t hit the ball well and not putt well, or vice versa. You have to have everything going together at the same time.”
Phil Mickelson, who could take over No. 1 in the world with a victory and Woods finishing in a two-way tie for fourth or worse, won The Players two years ago with a strong week off the tee and around the greens.
But he has only two other top 10s, and four times got the weekend off.
Lefty is as excited as ever, however, saying the new grass on the greens from the makeover in 2007 has helped him read the lines a little better.
“I’m excited to get this thing started,” he said.
It all begins Thursday, with Woods going off in the morning, Mickelson in the afternoon, and what should be plenty of excitement in between. The focus will be on the finish, as always, and curiosity over who will emerge.
Based on history, it could be anyone.
“This is a course that you never see anybody do well all the time,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “You have to do everything right, be smart around here. So hopefully, I can do all that.”