Tour stars take to soccer pitch before Players

PGA Tour player Sergio Garcia reacts to his team, the Airmail Rovers FC, nearly making a goal during a friendly game of soccer at Davis Park.

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Editor's note: For complete Players Championship coverage, check out our microsite dedicated to this week's tournament by clicking here.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Time was running out Monday night, and desperate for the tying goal, the team didn’t have the iconic Sir Alex Ferguson to turn to. Fortunately, it did have Craig “Wee Mon” Connelly, who had seized control of the sideline and thus made the crucial decision.

Shannon Wallis was going into the game.

Of course, first Wallis had to decide if it was worth putting down the can of beer. Not sure it was, Wallis deferred and suggested that Dean Elliott go in instead. Elliott said no. Wallis insisted. Elliott, having already spent much of the evening on the turf, again said no and when most other members of the Airmail Rovers AC roared for Wallis to see action, the big man stepped onto the soccer pitch.

And just as he did, his mates scored what proved to be the tying goal in a 3-3 soccer match night that may not have been World Cup-quality, but you couldn’t have found more laughs anywhere else on the First Coast. It was the perfect way to break up the monotony and pressure of Players Championship week.

“We’ve come a long way,” said James Williams, the caddie for Nick O’Hern, and the guy who gets credit for gathering a group of PGA Tour players and caddies for organized soccer games. Like many splendid ideas, it was hatched well after working hours, in a New Orleans pub, to be specific, when “I met a bloke after having had too many beers,” Williams said.

The guy played on a local club soccer team and since Williams loved to play the sport, he figured why not set up a game. A few years later and Williams, who has settled in this area, is still putting together games. There was a match against Charlotte United last week, a 7-4 loss, but things went a lot better against Lynch’s Irish Pub at Davis Park, the PGA Tour group erasing deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to salvage a tie.

Of course, it continues to be a work in progress for the Airmail Rovers – and, by the way, nobody seemed quite sure how they got that name, though they loved the blue uniforms – because as the game ended, Alvaro Quiros announced that things would be different next game.

“We will have two balls. One for Sergio and one for the rest of us,” Quiros said.

Connelly, who caddies for Martin Kaymer, laughed, and so did everyone else. If Sergio Garcia took offense at the ribbing, no one noticed. That’s because seemingly every one of the 250 people who came to watch the game swarmed the Spaniard for autographs. With the sun having gone down, the mosquitos were out, but it didn’t faze Garcia, who signed everything put in front of him.

He is a passionate soccer player, Garcia is, and back home in Spain, he owns a piece of CF Borriol, a third division team. Playing up front, Garcia clearly showed how talented he is with some deft footwork and one goal off of a bullet with his left foot. But after one dazzling move provided him a shot on goal with the keeper badly fooled and left out of the net, Garcia was denied when a defender stepped in to block the shot.

On one play midway through the second half, Garcia moved into the offensive zone and eyed a loose ball. But so, too, did Wallis, though Garcia knew if his teammate touched the ball it would have been offside. “No, no, no,” Garcia shouted, but Wallis put his foot on it and the whistle blew. Shaking his head, but laughing, Garcia walked back upfield and one of the many caddies who came to watch the game shouted to Wallis: “Good thing you’re not caddieing for him, because you’d be fired.”

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PGA Tour player, Sergio Garcia, jokes around with a referee while playing soccer for the Airmail Rovers FC at Davis Par on Monday night before The Players Championship.

Garcia, Quiros and Nathan Green were the Tour players who suited up alongside a long list of caddies, and if the contest at Davis Park demonstrated anything, it is this: Professional golf remains a special part of our sports landscape, in large part because the game keeps players humble, in some small part because caddies keep the game filled with flavor.

Even those caddies who weren’t playing – James Edmondson (Ryan Palmer), Mark Fulcher (Justin Rose) and Tony Lingard (J.P. Hayes), for example – showed up to support the cause and to demonstrate the PGA Tour’s great international flair, they tossed around an Australian football with player Brendon de Jonge, who also came to watch.

Then again, they weren’t there just to watch; they were there to yell and critique.

Forming a wall against the opponents’ direct kick, one caddie reminded his mates where to position their hands. “Protect the twig and berries,” he said to rousing laughter.

“Oh, Nick, you’re such a caddie,” another yelled to Nick Hunter when Brad Faxon’s caddie missed a scoring chance and went sliding. And minutes later, when Elliott, who caddies for Stephen Ames, went to the turf after a slight collision with an opponent, he stayed there for a short time.

“Dean, do you need a stretcher – or a beer?” a fellow caddie yelled.

“It’s just something to do, something fun,” Williams said. “We’ve played two games and I hope to have maybe a few more.”

With word out that last week in Charlotte was a blast, Williams had some new faces in uniform, including Ronan Flood, who caddies for Padraig Harrington. And as if further proof is needed that Harrington is one of the game’s special personalities, the Irishman made it to Davis Park in time to see Flood get called into the game.

Now, it wasn’t a smooth substitution, mind you, at least not like you’d see in an Arsenal-Man U game, so Flood bounced around a few different positions and it wasn’t clear if he were playing fullback or midfield, left side or right. Harrington took note of this and laughed. “He certainly doesn’t lack enthusiasm,” Harrington said.

Minutes later, as the ball hugged the outside line and got chased by Green, who straddled the chalk in an effort to keep it in bounds, one of the caddies couldn’t resist. “Paddy, did you see if the ball was in front of the line?” he yelled and immediately everyone laughed wildly. Just one day before, Harrington at the Wells Fargo Championship had been forced to review a tee shot against a suggestion from a spectator that he had hit a tee shot in front of the markers.

Without hesitation, Harrington confirmed that he now was carrying string with him and could review the Green play, if they wanted.

As he dragged himself off the field late in the game, Green went to the bench and volunteered that he had “a cramp on a cramp,” and later, Garcia examined a small, but deep gash in his left lower leg. It is a wound from a previous soccer game in Spain, but from this night’s encounter with Lynch’s Irish Pub, Garcia had also jammed a toe on his right foot.

And Quiros? He may have pulled a groin, but his sense of humor and non-stop chatter were healthier than ever. The tall Spaniard agreed with an assessment that a key move for the PGA Tour team was to take him off the back line and install him into a forward position. “I kept telling them,” Quiros said, “to move me up. I should not be back.”

But he will be back – in soccer uniform, that is, because there is more to life than golf, so he’ll answer Williams’ call for players.

“It is,” Quiros said, “so much fun.”

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Editor's note: For complete Players Championship coverage, check out our microsite dedicated to this week's tournament by clicking here.

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