Babineau: Stadium Course favors no player

The par-3 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass

The par-3 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – I did a guest spot on a radio show this morning, and everyone wanted to know a prediction for the weekend at The Players. Picking a winner at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass? That’s funny. You’d have a better shot at choosing tonight’s winning PowerBall numbers.

Why? Hard to pinpoint exactly, but I’ll do my best. This tournament, and the Stadium Course specifically, are, well, quite different than most. The golf course is a terrific test (ranked 21st in Golfweek’s Best Modern list) that plays fast and fiery, and the field is always stacked. But it always seems the dominant theme at this event is sheer unpredictability.

How else does one explain that only five of the top-10-ranked players in the world will play here on the weekend? How Rory McIlroy, the world No. 1, missed his third cut at TPC Sawgrass in as many starts? And how the Tour’s three longest cut streaks – belonging to Steve Stricker (49), Gary Woodland (22) and Webb Simpson (18) – all came to an end on Friday? Stricker, a man who doesn’t check out of many hotels at Tour stops on Friday nights, now is batting .500 at The Players, having missed eight cuts in 16 career starts.

It’s a fine tournament, and Sunday we’ll get a quality winner, but competing here almost seems as if one is playing with a falling bank safe hanging somewhere overhead. Watery disaster lurks at Nos. 17 and 18, so a player is never really home until he signs for a score afterward. And therein lies the unpredictability of who’s going to win. Simpson was rolling along at 1 under par, rinsed balls at 16 and 17, and suddenly, he’s back in Charlotte for the weekend.

If there’s a trend to watch this weekend, keep an eye on the guys who drive it accurately on a consistent basis. Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, Luke Donald, Brian Davis, Kevin Na … those are all players who rank in the top 20 in the Tour’s Driving Accuracy stat. One must keep it in the short grass and avoid the rough here to have any kind of shot. Keep a real good watch on Donald and Lee Westwood, each five shots back, in a proper spot to make some noise.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, each at 2-under 142, lurk within striking distance of the leaders heading to the weekend at six shots back. But this is the one venue where you arrive on Tuesday or Wednesday and don’t immediately think of those two. Strange, isn’t it? Truth is, the two have now combined for 34 starts here, and have been in the thick of contention only four previous times between them. That’s a return rate of roughly 12 percent. Each has one Players victory on his respective resume – Woods in 2001, Mickelson in 2007. Otherwise, at this place, they always rendered to being two guys in a crowded room. That’s pretty strange.

Jacksonville Times-Union columnist Gene Frenette on Saturday morning wrote that the Stadium Course is the most democratic layout in golf in that it favors absolutely nobody. Maybe that’s the way it should be for a players’ championship.

His democratic depiction certainly earns my vote.

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