2005: Saved by the wind

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

For four days, this was not what Deane Beman had in mind for The Players Championship. A wet sock wasn’t his vision.

Back in the day, the former PGA Tour commissioner had something like Masters status in mind for his beloved TPC. Instead we got a stormy Nissan Open type of swampfest this year that entered Monday with the third round barely under way.

This was Army golf. Stand around and wait. Or sit around and complain. Players had more than enough time on their hands to express dissent about the possibility of extending play to Tuesday.

There were so many rain delays over three days, you’d have thought it was the West Coast Swing or a Borneo Rainforest, which sometimes are hard to distinguish from one another. The most quoted man in golf was Mark Russell, the rules official giving updates. The most invisible was Tim Finchem, perhaps by design.

But just when golf’s longest year was being wetted down by golf’s longest tournament, something wild happened. The rain stopped and the wind started. Not only did it blow, but it blew at 84 men wearing golf spikes like it was road-rage angry. Or like architect Pete Dye was pushing the buttons behind the curtain.

An old-timer in the press room figured something bizarre was up when he went on a Monday morning stroll.

“When I was walking on the beach this morning, the seagulls weren’t even trying to fly,” he said of the precursor to the carnage. “And when they walked they looked like drunks.”

Sadly, the same could be said of some of the players. Wind that gusted to 35 mph turned a soggy, sleepy tournament into a Stephen King novel.

Your correspondent has witnessed 20 Players Championships. For four days, this was the most boring of them all. But suddenly it went from the least memorable to perhaps the most unforgettable.

One man’s drama is another man’s nightmare, of course. The final day was one of golf’s most exciting unless you happened to be one of those chopping up a TPC at Sawgrass course that might have been unplayable had the greens not been soft.

“This has been fantastic,” NBC Sports golf analyst Johnny Miller said during a final round in which 16 players shot in the 80s. “Pete Dye is just back there giggling himself to sleep.”

Speaking of slumber, the 17th hole was something of a bad dream for contestants.

The island 17th is the game’s most notorious hole, and Monday it was as wicked as a witch from any direction. By late morning, No. 17 was turning the world’s best into zoo monkeys.

Phil Mickelson splashed three balls there Monday. He was 6 under par and in remote contention until he rinsed two shots and made 7 in the morning. But that turned out to be nothing, because two groups later, one man’s scorecard exploded in plain view.

The 2005 Players will be always known as the tournament where Bob Tway, a likeable chap, took a record Dirty Dozen at 17. That’s right, a 12, which Webster’s New World Dictionary defines as “two more than ten.”

A shell-shocked Tway might have won the tournament if it weren’t for those 137 yards of hell. He was tied for 10th at 7 under par until he took five swings, four penalty strokes and three putts there. He would end that third round tied for 71st and finish tied for 56th.

“You’re playing great in the tournament, and all of a sudden, you might as well be finishing last,” the low-key Tway said. “It’s a shame it happens when you play that well for that long.”

Thanks to his dunking of six shots at No. 17, Tway scored 4, 6, 12 and 4 there. That’s 14 over, a watery cemetery. Had he replaced those with four pars, he would have tied for second place at 8 under in the Tour’s richest event. As it was, plenty of reporters wanted to speak with him anyway.

“I guess you have to make a 12 to get someone to talk to you,” he said.

Tway, the 1986 PGA champion and one of the game’s most underrated pros, sent his first two balls over the green at 17. His next two spun back off. Finally his ninth shot found land, 42 feet and three putts from the cup.

The meltdown so bothered Scott Verplank, Tway’s best friend, that Verplank knocked his next tee shot into the water and made double bogey at No. 18 en route to tying for second. Verplank kept Tway’s scorecard but said he wasn’t “about to ask him what he got.”

It was enough to get Robert Gamez off the books. Gamez made 11 there in 1990.

“At least I was in the record book for something,” said Gamez, who gave a happy “all right” and a fist pump when informed of being surpassed. “I didn’t think anyone would break it, but the way conditions are today, anything can happen.”

I am certain, by painful personal experience, that 7 over on one hole would be called a septuple bogey. Not quite sure what to call 9 over on a single hole, other than an oversized pile of mess.

The 17th is golf’s version of Daytona International Speedway, home of NASCAR. Regulars go out to their favorite watering hole to witness wrecks. And Monday they got their gory money’s worth.

Twenty-six balls found water in Monday morning’s third round, 10 more than in the first two rounds combined. Twenty-eight more splashed in Monday afternoon’s final round. With the wind left to right, at least one player in each of the last eight threesomes rinsed a shot at No. 17 in Round 3. The scoring averages in the last two rounds were 3.58 and 3.78, respectively, a bit more hair-raising than the 2.95 of the first two spread-out rounds.

It was such a tough, long Monday that co-runner-up Luke Donald sighed, “When I sat down to sign my scorecard, I was almost close to fainting.”

Other than losing one’s swing, wind is the only thing a touring pro fears. And here it howled to the point that Vijay Singh, who would rather practice than sleep, said, “I don’t even hit balls when it’s this windy.”

Leaders retreated while drama swirled. And Vijay took the evening off. It’s remarkable what a batch of swift air can do.

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