Tough week for the world's best
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- What a strange week at The Players Championship.
In a season dominated by guys who bomb the ball 300 yards and don't care if it's straight or not, little ol' Fred Funk and his 262-yard average drive just mowed down the field by hitting fairway after fairway.
Funk proved an old adage that he retold Monday night after his victory: "You can be long and crooked, but you can't be short and crooked."
Which brings us to all those long hitters. Just what happened to them anyway?
You can call them the Big Four or the Fab Five, but either way, you can't call them champions at this year's Players Championship.
Entering the week, the stage was seemingly set for golf's four superstars -- Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson; some like to add fifth-ranked Retief Goosen and make it a fivesome -- as each was playing at or near the top of his game throughout the season.
So what happened?
Singh started hot with an opening-round 67, but a quadruple-bogey on the 18th hole in his second round led to a 74 and he never seriously got back into contention. He finished T-12.
Woods looked unusually average throughout the week, never shooting below 70. The 2001 champ, he just never got things going, shooting 70-73-75-75 in his four rounds for a T-53 finish -- his lowest placing on a leaderboard since a T-67 at the Memorial in 1997. (He also finished T-53 at Pebble Beach in 1999.)
Els was the recipient of some good fortune in the second round. After opening on Friday by blocking a tee shot far right, then hitting his second shot off of playing partner Lee Janzen, Els had a 12-footer for bogey when the horn sounded, suspending play. When play resumed the next day as lift, clean and place, all players who had started their rounds on Friday were forced to start over. Els made par instead of trying to save bogey en route to a second straight 71, but shot 74-69 in the final two rounds for a benign T-17 finish.
Mickelson was in contention at 6 under when he left the course Sunday night, but went 5 over while completing his third round on Monday morning, essentially shooting his way out of it, with a 77. He followed in the afternoon with a 75 to finish T-40.
Goosen was only four strokes behind leader Luke Donald entering the final round, but shot a 76 on Monday afternoon to finish in a share of 12th place.
The top five players each finished outside of the top 10 in a tournament considered the fifth biggest of the season. Just goes to show that nothing is inevitable or predictable on the PGA Tour.
Sure, the money's nice -- a cool $1.44 million -- but the big prize for Funk is the five-year exemption that comes with the win. While most tour events grant a two-year exemption, the PGA Tour, in essence, signs the winner of the Players to a five-year contract -- just like the four majors. It's a great perk; you can ask someone who knows a little about perks and has needed said exemption to retain his card: 2002 champ Craig Perks.
Throughout his career, Funk's wins have come in some, well, not-so-important events, we'll say. Wins at the Ideon Classic at Pleasant Valley and the Deposit Guarantee Golf Classic are even taken with a grain of salt by Funk himself. "Usually, if I win a tournament, they move the venue or get rid of the tournament," Funk said, only half-jokingly.
It's not often you see a player in the final group who's as far out of contention as Lee Westwood was on Monday afternoon. The reason it happened is because the tour did not re-pair players after the third round, instead keeping the same groups that played together in the third round. Westwood shot 65-69 to work his way into a late tee time with Luke Donald and Tim Herron, but shot a third-round 80 to fall off. Westy was actually at level-par for the round through 13 holes, then made four bogeys and a quadruple-bogey (at the 17th) to finish out his round.
Scott Verplank has never won an event as big as the Players, but he should have felt pretty comfortable while in contention in the final two rounds. That's because he had good buddy Bob Tway by his side as a playing partner. The two are such good friends, in fact, that when Verplank was named as the U.S. representative for last year's World Cup, he called on Tway to fill out the two-man team.
At first glance, Tway's 9-over 12 at the par-3 17th hole in the third round doesn't sound very good, but it wasn't actually that bad. According to observers at the hole, two of the four tee shots that Tway put into the water on the island hole went just past the pin, then spun back off the green and into the pond. The 12 was the worst score in Players history on the famed hole; Robert Gamez made an 11 in 1990.
Steve Jones may have incited a new trend in golf this week: Throw out your old putter. Or, at the very least, get a new one. After 23 years of using the same bull's-eye putter, Jones switched to a new flatstick and shot an opening-round 64. During the round, he made everything inside of 10 feet and hit a 47-footer on 18 to end his day.
The TPC-Sawgrass' 17th hole gets all the pub, but the 18th is one of the best finishing holes in golf. During Monday's final round, no player made birdie on the 447-yard par-4 which is paralleled by water down its entire left side. And a quick check of PGA Tour Shotlink statistics shows that almost as many balls flew into the water off the tee on 18 as did on the famed 17th hole.
On the par-5 second hole Saturday, Jonathan Byrd pulled his tee shot left, hitting a tree and apparently landing the ball in a cluster of plants to the left of the fairway. While his search party -- which included playing partners Goosen and K.J. Choi -- rifled through the area in hopes of finding the ball, Byrd walked some 50 yards back towards the tee and found his ball on the other side of the fairway. Officially, it was an 87-yard drive for Byrd as he salvaged bogey on the hole.
With players' names marking their parking spots outside the clubhouse, it was easy to tell who made the drive from their Florida home and who was a fish out of water. The out-of-towners all sported courtesy cars, while the hometown folks drove their own wheels. Perhaps the wheels that drew the most attention from folks walking through the parking lot was Stuart Appleby's canary-yellow Lamborghini. Unfortunately for Appleby, who lives in Orlando, he drove it home early as he missed the cut.
It seems the PGA Tour can't catch a break this year, with inclement weather affecting seven of its 13 events so far. It was quite appropriate then, that after the tour distributed umbrellas to members of the media Sunday night, there was hardly another raindrop in Ponte Vedra Beach.
If the good folks at Augusta National want to do the right thing, they'll grant Colin Montgomerie an exemption for The Masters in two weeks. Monty has traveled far and wide this year in hopes of earning his way back into the top 50 in the World Ranking, which would ensure making the field at Augusta for the 14th straight time. This past week, that meant heading to Indonesia, where his final round 60 (he missed a 10-foot putt on the final hole for a 59) only gave him a share of fourth place and left him short of his goal.
When our friend Ron Sirak from Golf World magazine wrote last week that Annika Sorenstam might win every tournament she enters this season, we thought that could be a slight exaggeration. Uh, maybe not. Sorenstam lapped the field at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major of the year, shooting 15 under and winning by eight strokes over Rosie Jones. If the woman who already has 59 career titles under her belt is just reaching her peak, watch out. Entering the season, all the talk was about which young gun -- Lorena Ochoa, Aree Song, Grace Park or Paula Creamer -- could knock Sorenstam from the perch on which she has presided for so long. But if she continues to play the way she has lately, those other players are going to have a lot of waiting to do.
Need further proof of Annika's recent dominance? An ABC Sports/ESPN.com poll over the weekend asked who is the best women's golfer of all-time, with Kathy Whitworth, Babe Didrikson-Zaharias, Mickey Wright and Sorenstam as the four choices. The latter player won, with an overwhelming 69.3 percent of the vote.
If it seems weird for the LPGA to schedule its first major of the season directly opposite a big event on the PGA Tour, well, it is, especially considering the fact that the ladies' tour has no event scheduled for next week, directly opposite the more benign BellSouth Classic. Supposedly that will change next year, but for this week, the LPGA missed out on a great opportunity to showcase its best talent.
Big news on the mini-tours this week, as it was announced the Golden Bear Tour -- originally founded by Jack Nicklaus -- will merge with the Grey Goose Gateway Tour. The new tour will continue use of the Grey Goose name and players previously exempt on each tour will remain as such on the new tour.
Ever wanted to see what Kirk Triplett looked like without the top of his trademark bucket hat sewn on? OK, maybe not, but Pukka Headwear is currently introducing its new product which will do just that. The "Vucket" is a bucket hat without the lid, offering players a chance to remain in the shade while still keeping cool. Not sure if we'll see any tour players wearing one anytime soon, but this is one fad that could take off, especially on the junior level.
"I felt kind of like Herbie the Volkswagen, the Love Bug, because I'm just out there just hitting my little pea-shooters and the bombers are going 40 by me. I tried not to let that bother me, because I knew it was more important to be in the fairway."
-- Funk on his lack of distance off the tee
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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