Wednesday, May 13, 2009
It was a few days before play would begin in The Players Championship when different conversations at various corners of TPC Sawgrass demonstrated the great appeal of this tournament.
No, it isn’t a major championship (there are but four and that shop has been closed for decades), but it sure generates major debates. And that speaks volumes for its worth.
At one corner, there was an opinion forwarded by one acquaintance that PGA Tour officials erred by moving this championship to May. Since 1977 when it was just in its fourth season, The Players Championship had been a mid-March staple, but in recent years that date bothered the PGA Tour hierarchy.
The weather was too unsettled. The Stadium Course too wet. The greens too slow. The golf buzz too much pre-Masters. The sports buzz too much college basketball.
Reasons aplenty to move to early May, which the PGA Tour did in 2007. Cheers to them, it says here, though not everyone agrees with the decision. Thus did one conversation revolve around the suggestion that by moving to May, fewer European devotees will pencil Ponte Vedra Beach into their schedules.
For proof, it was pointed out that Lee Westwood, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and Alvaro Quiros were not in attendance. It’s difficult to tell if anyone noticed, of course, but a few days later it was easy to take note of this: A Swede who takes up membership on the European PGA Tour (Henrik Stenson) won and a Brit who splits his time between Europe and the U.S. (Ian Poulter) finished second.
It was the first time in the 36-year history of this vaunted championship that Europeans went 1-2, and it was just a year ago that another European stalwart, Sergio Garcia, won.
Not the sort of evidence that makes you think the Europeans will skip Sawgrass, is it? Let’s not forget that the $9.5 million purse – and you can expect it to reach $10 million next May – is something that makes that cross-Atlantic flight a little easier for those Europeans who want to head that way for a stretch of attractive tournaments – the Irish Open, the BMW PGA, and the European Open.
Another voice wasn’t so much concerned about Europeans bypassing the tournament as he was that the firm and fast Stadium Course was allowing too many pretenders and denying too many contenders.
His theory went along these lines – that with the ball running so much, it took driver out of the hands of certain players, afforded short hitters a better chance, creating a recipe for a B-grade tournament.
Perhaps this man was sleeping in 2006 when Tiger Woods put on one of the most scintillating ball-striking performances ever, mostly with his long irons and fairway woods, to win the British Open at baked-out Royal Hoylake.
Never did anyone threaten to take away the Claret Jug because the driver had rarely been withdrawn from Woods’ bag. It was exquisite shot-making, great course management, and golf at its best by golf’s best.
Enter Henrik Stenson, because a few days after that discussion about drivers being unnecessary, the stoic Swede dominated the championship with his composure, his ball-striking, his putting – oh, and his 3-wood because for him, the driver was the 14th and final club.
Which is a bad thing?
Quite the contrary, it’s wonderful, and it hints at the beauty of the Stadium Course. You may not need driver there, especially in May and especially if you hit it like Stenson. But you need great ball-striking and shot-making skills, and what about that is unsettling?
That the Stadium Course is quirky and allows too many players into the mix – as the argument went – is laughable. We need only focus on the last 10 editions of this great championship to see why. Since 2000, here are the winners and their world ranking at the time:
Hal Sutton (11), Woods (1), Davis Love, (7), Adam Scott (18), Fred Funk (59), Stephen Ames (68), Phil Mickelson (3), Garcia (18), and Stenson (9).
(OK, Craig Perks, who was ranked 256th, should be on that list, but every tournament – even the majors – have had their share of long-shot winners. Jack Fleck comes to mind, as do Tommy Aaron, Bob Hamilton, and Ben Curtis.)
The greater point is, great courses produce great champions and that’s a stellar list of winners since 2000. That driver wasn’t the club of choice for guys like Woods, Love, Scott, Mickelson, Garcia, and Stenson, but that didn’t preclude them from finding a way to win.
Which is what the great ones do, and it’s a supreme compliment to the Stadium Course and The Players Championship, both of which have benefitted from the move to May.
And for those who still question that, there’s this thought: Monday finishes were required three times in a six-year stretch (2000-05) and had this year’s tournament been in its old March week, we may have had a Tuesday finish the weather was so bad.
Sort of makes that 90-degree stuff we had last week a bit more comfortable, eh?