'Massive change' in greens at TPC Sawgrass causes high numbers in third round of Players Championship

Billy Horschel

'Massive change' in greens at TPC Sawgrass causes high numbers in third round of Players Championship

PGA Tour

'Massive change' in greens at TPC Sawgrass causes high numbers in third round of Players Championship

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Seventeen holes into his round, Adam Scott felt like so many of his colleagues: a sparring partner for putting surfaces that were so crusty and so slick and so overwhelmingly the winner in Saturday’s third round of The Players Championship.

Then as Scott stood on the 18th green, he stole a glance at the leaderboard and saw that a blast from the past, Retief Goosen, was 8 under and fixed well up on the leaderboard.

The Aussie could not help but smile. “I’m thinking, He must like these kind of glass greens, like Shinnecock where he one-putted his way to win.”

Ah, yes, the infamous 2004 U.S. Open on the tip of Long Island, an unforgettable fourth-round that featured tales of putting woes that will live forever. Scott did not make the cut that year, but he experienced Shinnecock’s diabolical speeds for two days and fully appreciates what Goosen faced in winning his second U.S. Open in four years.

Turns out, Scott was of the same mindset of so many others at The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass yesterday, because the word “Shinnecock” was invoked by many.

“A lot of caddies kept asking, ‘What’s this remind you of?’ ” said James Edmondson, the caddie for Ryan Palmer. “Everyone said, ‘Shinnecock.’ ”

And when his back-nine 42 and round of 79 was complete, Ian Poulter blurted out “TPC Shinnecock,” only to catch himself and shake his head.

“I’ll refrain from saying anything,” Poulter declared, and wisely he moved to the autograph area and signed for a long line of youngsters.

“Poulter had no comment?” Graeme McDowell said lightheartedly because, after all, this had been a day like the PGA Tour brotherhood hadn’t faced in a long, long time.

Oh, practical minds might say Jason Day started Round 3 with a four-stroke lead and ended it still four in front, but that would miss a storyline that had layers of flavor and immeasurable viewpoints.

What happened was, “a different golf course showed up,” Scott said.

Numbers will help lay the foundation:

  • The field averages for Rounds 1 and 2 were 71.015 and 71.112, respectively. Saturday’s third-round average was 75.594.
  • With green speeds off the charts, there were 149 combined three-putts or worse for the 76 who teed it up.
  • Most eye-opening of all, for Rounds 1 and 2 the field was a cumulative 272 under; for Round 3 the field was 273 over.

Told that Scott had mentioned Goosen’s name and brought up the 2004 U.S. Open, the 46-year-old South African nodded his head.

“It was a fine line today, similar to Shinnecock,” Goosen said after shooting 2-under 70 to get into a share of sixth, at 8 under but still six behind Day (73). “This is similar, very similar. This was a dry wind that dried these greens down to nothing (like Shinnecock).”

It’s as good a time as any to introduce the other side of the story, the PGA Tour explanation for what happened. Conspiracists will suggest it was payback for the way the lads ripped up the PGA Tour’s home course Thursday and Friday (a pair of record-tying 63s were shot, and Rory McIlroy appeared headed for a 62 before he bogeyed the last hole Friday), but Mark Russell brushed that aside.

The PGA Tour’s director of rules and competition said the staff prepared the course for Round 3 as it had for Rounds 1 and 2. “We have been double-cutting these greens and double-rolling them, trying to get them firmed up,” Russell said.

What the staff didn’t account for was a cloudless sky, 20-mph winds and very low humidity (30 percent), a “perfect storm” of factors that Russell said created faster greens than they had planned on.

“We got caught with a situation . . . and the greens just sped up.”

Now the moments of agony were plentiful. Sergio Garcia used his putter six times to make a quadruple bogey at the par-4 fifth. Brendon de Jonge putted off the green at the par-4 sixth. Kevin Streelman needed four putts from 8 feet — “and it was uphill,” said playing competitor McDowell.

True enough, it was tough to watch, but to give the huge majority of players credit, lips were bitten, perspective was embraced and anger was muffled. And when Ken Duke, No. 495 in the Official World Golf Ranking, ran off five straight birdies on his second nine and came home in 65, one by one players offered praise and said their complaints were thus neutralized.

“That has to be the best round — and I mean, ever,” Russell Knox said.

Duke was brilliant, an improbable bogey-free round ruined only by a missed 6-footer for par on his second hole, the par-5 11th. But on this day, missed 6-footers were the norm and so were the three-putts, four-putts and even two five-putts.

Which is where the reactions and scores must come in.

“Balls were gliding on the greens,” said Justin Rose (78).

“I thought we were putting on dance floors,” said Billy Horschel (75).

“There was nothing to stop the ball,” said Scott (75).

What nearly everyone seemed to agree on was the point Scott emphasized: “There was no warning this was coming. They were quite slow Thursday and Friday. Scores reflected it. But there was a massive change; it wasn’t very subtle.”

Shock is the perfect word,” McDowell said. “(The change) was shocking.”

But at the same time, players — or at least a large majority of them — maintained composure.

“Was it unfair? I don’t think it was unfair, but it was tough,” McDowell said.

“We always play golf on the edge,” Rose said. “That’s what tournament setups are. Players talk about, ‘Oh, we want it firm and fast,’ then when we get it just a little too firm and too fast, we hate it.

“There’s a very fine line there. It’s difficult sometimes, and you’re dealing with Mother Nature.”

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