Nine items of note before start of The Players
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s hot and humid, and there’s a grueling 72-hole competition on deck. So, in an effort to conserve energy, just as players do just nine holes of the Stadium Course on Wednesday, we’ll keep it to nine items of note on the eve of the 38th Players Championship:
1.) PERSPECTIVE, FROM A MAJOR SOURCE: We have 3,894 of the top 3,896 players in the world here – or something like that – and still there are people who are far too fixated on two who aren’t: Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy.
Honestly, get over it.
So Westwood is ranked No. 1 in the world and McIlroy No. 6. Here’s something else: Check their passports, they’re Europeans, and what’s more, they’re members of the European Tour. There are a minimum of eight times per year when the world’s best players gather at a tournament – the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship and four World Golf Championships – and chances are pretty good Westwood and McIlroy will be there for all eight.
After that, it’s up to them, as it should be.
“I completely understand that guys choose not to play it,” Graeme McDowell said. “Guys (have) got to do what’s best for them. It is a little bit of a selfish sport sometimes. I think we play against each other enough week in and week out.”
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2.) THE GRAIN’S THE PAIN: Bermudagrass remains a mystery to a large majority of the golf population, even qualified Tour guys. That is why as Phil Mickelson watched his three playing competitors make shots up a steep slope just off the 11th green Tuesday, he had to speak up. “Quick thing, guys,” the left-hander said. “Into the grain, just one skip. Don’t double-skip the ball. It will skip, but just once, and don’t force it.”
Mickelson was reminding them that Bermuda grain is gnarly and will grab the club and the first hop will be sticky. Jeff Overton, Steve Marino and Dustin Johnson all listened, then adjusted, choosing firmer shots further up the slope so that after one skip it would bound onto the green.
Later, at the chipping area, Edoardo Molinari was also trying to figure out the concept of getting a wedge cleanly under the ball on tightly-mown Bermudagrass. Molinari, time and time again, felt the grass kept grabbing the club until Padraig Harrington, by now an experienced competitor on Bermuda, stopped, watched and told the Italian to not even try, that it’s impossible to get clean contact with Bermuda.
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3.) SIGN HIM UP: At 18, Matteo Manassero is already a two-time winner on the European Tour and ranked 33rd in the world.
Impressive, only here’s the really good part: He’s also keen to sign up for those occasional soccer games organized by the international players and caddies. There were matches in Charlotte (7-4 loss) and this past Monday here in Ponte Vedra Beach (3-3 tie), and the boys seemed to enjoy it wildly.
No surprise that the young Italian is a soccer guy, and he smiled when asked if he had heard the buzz about this week’s game, that Alvaro Quiros and Sergio Garcia were phenoms up front who loved having the ball on their foot. No worries, there, Manassero said.
“I’m a defender,” he said. “Immediately I give up the ball.”
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4.) THE COMPUTER KNOWS: To perhaps soften the percolating controversy that is Rory Sabbatini, you have to wonder if the PGA Tour fed into its computer some criteria for quiet, soft-spoken and gentlemanly playing competitors because for a second consecutive week, Jonathan Byrd has drawn the assignment, and Nick Watney will finish off the group for Rounds 1 and 2 of The Players Championship.
Against the Sabbatini volatility – and at the Honda Classic in March he conceded that “I’ve had my moments; I’m not proud of everything I’ve done out here, but I’m trying to learn” – Byrd and Watney are two stand-up guys who are in stark contrast to Sabbatini’s sandpaper personality.
Rumors continue to swirl that Sabbatini will be suspended for his actions in an on-course flare-up with fellow player Sean O’Hair in New Orleans.
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5.) NEW PARTNERSHIP: There’s nothing definitive being announced, but at least for this week Dustin Johnson has a new caddie, albeit a familiar face: Joe LaCava.
Well known for his years of service alongside Fred Couples, LaCava will carry for Johnson this week, then see how things unfold. There’s a chance he could bounce back and forth, since Couples doesn’t figure to play a ton, but LaCava wasn’t going to get into the dynamics of it all.
Johnson, who recently split from his longtime friend Bobby Brown, in three Players Championship appearances has gone MC, T-79 and T-34, so maybe a little bit of LaCava’s knowledge will help. LaCava in his 20 years with Couples can claim one victory at the Stadium Course and five finishes inside the top 15.
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6.) A PRICELESS PERK: His first appearance at The Players Championship brings with it a lot of awards, including this: He could pretty much nail down a spot in the upcoming U.S. Open.
“That would be a relief, to know I’m in,” Gary Woodland said. “Even though I’ve qualified each of the last two years, it would be nice to be qualified.”
He is on the bubble in two qualifying categories, both of which have May 23 as a cutoff. Woodland needs to be top 10 in PGA Tour money (he’s currently eighth) or top 50 in the world (presently 48th).
Beyond the fact that Woodland wouldn’t have to tee it up in The Memorial with qualifying hanging over his head, there’s the fact he could sit back and plan a trip to Congressional for a practice round at his leisure.
“I’d be able to be a little more prepared to play,” he said.
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7.) OLD STORIES: There are three members of the Champions Tour in this week’s field. One, Mark O’Meara, is in via winning the Senior Players Championship, but the other two – Kenny Perry (97th) and Corey Pavin (116th) – finished top 125 on last year’s money list.
Pavin has played just once on the PGA Tour this year (T-55 at Riviera), and in six Champions Tour starts has two top 10s. Perry has struggled in six PGA Tour starts, playing 72 holes just twice, but in three tournaments with the older crowd he has a second and a fifth.
Another Champions Tour guy has been on site, but Jerry Pate came to reminisce about the 30-year anniversary of The Players Championship at the Stadium Course. He won that 1992 tournament, then celebrated by jumping into the water that surrounds the 18th green.
When he hears all the hoopla and sniping that goes on regarding the island-green 17th these days, Pate shakes his head.
“These kids hit it so far today they’re hitting wedges,” he said. “It was an 8-iron 30 years ago. If they miss that green with a wedge, they don’t deserve to win and that’s about all I can say. It’s not that tough a shot.”
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8.) HE WON, AGAIN: Chalk up a successful title defense for Tim Clark, at least when you consider the request he made. Tournament officials usually honor the defending champion by hoisting his nation’s flag in the winner’s circle, but Clark, a South African, asked if they wouldn’t instead fly the Spanish flag in honor of the late Seve Ballesteros.
“Seve was a hero of mine growing up,” Clark said. “I think the whole golf world is saddened by (his death). To have his flag up here is just a small little tribute to him.”
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9.) ONE TOO MANY OR TWO SHORT: When you look at the pairings and see two twosomes leading things off the first tee in the afternoon, you scratch your head. Normally, tournaments start with the perfect number for groups of three, be it 144, 150 or 156.
But at The Players Championship, the field is comprised of 144 players, then they add the Senior Players Championship winner. So, at 145, officials are forced to go with 47 threesomes and two twosomes.
More than one player has raised the question: Why not expand the field to 146, then add the Senior Players Championship winner so you’d have 49 threesomes?