First-timers have hands full at Players

Bud Cauley hits an approach shot during a practice round prior to the start of THE PLAYERS Championship held at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Once was enough for Sang-Moon Bae. The PGA Tour rookie hit the green with his first tee shot at TPC Sawgrass’ famed 17th hole, a result that convinced him not to try to repeat the feat.

“After I hit one shot on the green, I just go,” Bae said.

There’s no reason to risk making bad memories before competing in your first Players Championship.

Bae, No. 35 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is one of 16 first-time participants at this week’s Players Championship. They range from Bae, a 25-year-old Tour rookie who’s earned nearly $1 million this season, to 38-year-old David Mathis, who’s competing in the biggest event of his career. He’s never played a major or World Golf Championship. Bud Cauley, who grew up in nearby Jacksonville, and Jacksonville Beach resident Matt Every also are playing their hometown event for the first time.

Bae played his practice round with K.J. Choi, the Players’ defending champion. Choi has long served as a mentor to his up-and-coming countrymen. There’s plenty to teach about TPC Sawgrass’ Players Stadium Course.

The 17th hole is famous for its extreme design. Most of Sawgrass is much more subtle, but still challenging. Pete Dye installed plenty of optical trickery into this layout, while also forcing players to make plenty of decisions.

“It’s a fun golf course. It’s a little bit goofy. It’s typical Pete Dye,” said Players rookie Michael Thompson, who played TPC Sawgrass while competing in a college event at Sawgrass Country Club, located across from Florida State Road A1A. “You really have to be committed on every shot, especially off the tee, because there’s a lot of blind shots and a lot of little mounds. It’s a good test mentally on how committed you can be.”

None of the Players rookies is as experienced as Cauley, who earned his way into the field because of his standing on this year’s FedEx Cup points list. He’s 43rd, a continuation of 2011’s good play that earned him a PGA Tour card on sponsor exemptions. Last year, Cauley used the private end of TPC Sawgrass’ range in between his sporadic PGA Tour starts. That area is reserved for PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour members. “I’ve been kind of sneaking back there,” Cauley joked at the time.

He estimates he’s played the Stadium Course some 50 times. He was at the 17th green when Tiger Woods made his famous “better-than-most putt.” Cauley also is the first player to play the Players Championship after playing the AJGA’s Junior Players Championship, which is also held at the Players Stadium Course. He finished third in the inaugural playing, in 2007.

“It’s always been my dream to play this event,” he said.

Mathis has good memories at TPC Sawgrass in 2010, despite having never played the Players. He won a Nationwide Tour event at the property’s other course, Dye’s Valley. That win earned him a return trip to the PGA Tour. He’s never competed in a major, World Golf Championship or the Players Championship. That will change this week.

“It’s the same facility,” Mathis said. “You’re driving into the same parking lot. It brings back good vibes no matter what.”

That’s good. The rookies will need all the help they can get. Hal Sutton (1983) and Craig Perks (2002) are the only players to win in their first appearance at TPC Sawgrass.

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