Why the players love The Players
For those who think literally, the PGA Tour season begins at the Mercedes Championships.
For those who like to be inclusionary, the season starts with the Sony Open, the year's first full-field tournament.
For those who deduce in historical terms, the season might truly commence at Doral, the first event to include each of the world's elite players.
But for those who analyze sensibly, the people who look at the big picture, the season really kicks off with this week's Players Championship, the prelude to the year's first major. With The Masters a mere three weeks away, the Weekly 18 examines why, unlike Augusta National, the Stadium Course at TPC-Sawgrass is a venue everyone can love.
Perhaps the strongest praise of Augusta National's recent course-lengthening changes comes from four-time Masters champ Tiger Woods, who recently got a sneak peek and came away with this assessment: "Interesting. Very interesting."
Of course, Woods may not have sounded over-complimentary, but at least he added that the course still "fits his eye" and kept from directly castigating Augusta officials. Other players were more brazen in their judgments, ranging from Lee Westwood saying, "It's really lost the fact that you used to have to shape the ball around there. Now you just have to crush it as hard as you can, which is unfortunate," to 2003 winner Mike Weir claiming, "I'm sure if Bobby Jones was still around, it would be like, 'What are you guys doing?' "
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the Weekly 18 figured we might hear just a tad more about these course changes before The Masters gets under way. But we have more pressing concerns; namely, how Sawgrass "fits the eye" of PGA Tour professionals. And dispersed amongst the jabs and potshots being deflected toward Augusta National are some truly favorable comments about the course.
"It's a great test," Ernie Els said. "I think to have different winners like that shows you how good the golf course is. Last year, Fred Funk, straightest driver on tour, wins the tournament. We've had Davis Love have a lot of success there, and he's one of the longest hitters on tour."
Indeed, shorter hitters like Funk, Justin Leonard and Lee Janzen have won the event in recent years, in addition to boomers like Love, Woods and Adam Scott. And isn't that the mark of a successful tournament venue? One which plays to both the strengths and weaknesses of both the long- and short-hitters on tour?
Perhaps Els and Woods were reading from the same scripted yardage book when they commented on the Stadium Course earlier this week.
"The longer hitters can get the ball in play with 3-woods a lot of holes, 2-irons," Els said. "It's a second-shot golf course."
"A lot of times for the longer hitters, it's 3-wood or 2-iron or some kind of utility club off the tees where the shorter guys are hitting drivers, so we're all in the same spot," Woods said. "With that in mind, it becomes a second-shot course."
One thing is clear: The players love The Players Championship. And maybe the folks down in Augusta should take that as a cue.
This week's Bay Hill Invitational was in danger of becoming just another ho-hum event, a decent battle down the stretch, but with perhaps no defining moment to make it memorable for years to come. And then Greg Owen stepped onto the 17th green Sunday. Owen hadn't made bogey all day and was one stroke ahead of Rod Pampling heading to the penultimate hole. After knocking his shot from the greenside bunker to 3 feet, 4 inches, Owen missed his par effort then spent less than seven seconds readying himself for the two-foot comebacker for bogey. The result? A putt that lipped around the diameter of the cup but failed to fall in, leaving him with a double-bogey and a share of the lead after Pampling made a bogey of his own. "I felt very calm," Owen later said. "It was just a lapse of concentration. Stupid." It will be an indelible image for years to come, one that Owen may find hard to live down.
Of course, Owen still had a chance to win on the final hole, needing to make par to match Pampling and send Bay Hill to a playoff. Though it may not remain etched in our memories as much as his three-jack on the previous hole, Owen's effort was a testament to his competitiveness. Standing over a lengthy par putt, Owen made what he thought was a perfect stroke ... and once again saw it hit all of the cup without falling in. Afterward, he chalked it up to the "golfing gods," but Owen will go to sleep Sunday night -- and for many other nights until his first PGA Tour win -- knowing he was inches away from winning for the first time.
Despite Owen's gaffe and subsequent misfortune, let's not forget to praise Pampling, who claimed his second career tour victory Sunday. Perhaps this win will help to erase a famous bungle of his own; although he won The International two years ago, entering this week Pampling was still most widely known as the guy who shot even-par 71 to lead the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, only to follow with a second-round 86 to miss the cut. Owen can only hope that the golfing gods reward his blooper in similar fashion.
Woods' T-20 Bay Hill finish was a surprise in itself (he won the event each year from 2000-'03), but paired with Annika Sorenstam's result it's big news. The women's No. 1 player finished T-19 at the LPGA's Safeway International, meaning this was the first time each top-ranked player finished outside of the top 10 in the same week since May of last season. Of course, it's not exactly like they were way off that week; Woods finished T-11 at the Wachovia Championship and Sorenstam was T-12 at the Michelob Ultra Open.
What's gotten into Robert Allenby? Never a short hitter, the Aussie has really stepped up his length off the tee this year, averaging 309.3 to rank fourth on tour entering the week. By comparison, last season he averaged only a 297.7-yard driving distance, which ranked 33rd, and was just below 295 in 2004. At Bay Hill, Allenby averaged 303.4 yards off the tee (ranking fifth in the field), riding his newfound distance to a fourth-place finish.
Dean Wilson is no stranger to opening-round leaderboards, as the 36-year-old tour vet has been in contention after two rounds at several events this season, including Bay Hill, where his Thursday 66 gave him a share of the lead entering the second round. His scoring average of 69.95 before the cut ranks 28th and his third-round average holds steady at 69.67. So why no finishes of better than T-7 this year? It's because of Wilson's final-round average of 73.50. That pattern held true to form at Bay Hill ... sort of. After rounds of 70-73 that left him in a share of 10th place entering Sunday, Wilson posted a final-round even-par 72 that left him T-10, too.
Speaking of final-round scoring average, we think we see the chink in Sergio Garcia's otherwise formidable armor. Entering Bay Hill, Garcia's final-round scoring average of 74.67 was more than four shots worse than his average over the first three rounds and ranked a lowly 171st on tour. He didn't do much to improve that number on Sunday, shooting a final-round 73 to drop from T-6 to T-10.
The story of the week had nothing to do with Pampling's victory or Woods' struggles or Palmer putting his name on the event for years to come. Instead, it was Billy Hurley, a 2004 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and current teacher there, who stole the show. After receiving a sponsor's exemption from Palmer to play in his first career PGA Tour event, Hurley shot 73-70 to make the cut and followed with rounds of 73-71, including birdies on three of his final five holes Sunday afternoon, to close out the weekend in a share of 43rd place. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Hurley would like to receive a special dispensation from the Navy to pursue his goals of playing on tour despite three more years of military commitment; in the past, basketball player David Robinson and football player Napoleon McCallum have been offered similar deals.
It's been an interesting and meteoric rise for Geoff Ogilvy recently, from enigmatic tour pro to Match Play champion to suave pitch man. Ogilvy was depicted in a series of major national print advertisements for Puma in the past week, his official clothing sponsor. That's quite a turn for a player who was recognizable to only the most diehard of golf fans until last month.
Last week in this space, we told you of Ogilvy's double-eagle in the Honda Classic first-round, only the second such instance on tour through 10 weeks this season. At Bay Hill, he almost did it again. Ogilvy's 176-yard second shot on the par-5 16th hole in Friday's second round stopped a mere five inches from the cup. From there, he simply tapped in for eagle. Ranked second on the money list entering Bay Hill, Ogilvy added to his yearly total with a T-26 result this week (despite a final-round 77).
Vijay Singh had a pair of interesting pars near the end of his third round Saturday. Singh reached the par-5 16th in two but failed to take advantage, three-jacking the green. On the par-3 17th, he pulled his tee shot, hitting the top of a nearby corporate tent. From there, the ball nestled in the thick rough, but Singh got up and down for his par. He made a more conventional par on the final hole to close out a bogey-free round of 68, then shot 69 on Sunday for a seventh-place finish.
Let's just say Mark Hensby won't be the favorite heading into the 2007 Arnold Palmer Invitational. Last year at Bay Hill, Hensby hooked his tee shot OB on the final hole of the second round, simply marked an "X" on his card and was promptly DQ'd rather than just missing the cut. Things were going along much nicer for Hensby this time around, with rounds of 73-70-73 during the first three days, but he had another blow-up in the final round. Already 1-over for the day, Hensby made a quintuple-bogey 10 on the par-5 sixth hole, eventually shooting 82 to finish second-to-last of all players who made the cut.
Surprised to see Jason Gore in contention at Bay Hill, where he opened with a 5-under 67 before falling to T-26 when it was finally over? You shouldn't be. Despite a season that has seen him miss the cut in five of eight starts and finish dead last at the no-cut Mercedes Championships, the big fella is -- and may always be -- an all-or-nothing guy. That means we should have been expecting more following his T-7 in Tucson at his most recent tour start. Gore's the type of guy who can run hot and cold, but now that his game is clicking, expect good things to happen over the next month or so.
What began as a rough season for 2005 Rookie of the Year Sean O'Hair isn't getting any better. After sleeping awkwardly in his hotel on Wednesday night, O'Hair reportedly left Bay Hill in a neck brace after Thursday's first round, during which he shot a 4-over 76. He subsequently withdrew, and his status for the Players Championship is questionable.
As an invitational, tournament officials at Bay Hill are given plenty of sponsor's exemptions to dole out and it's no surprise that one went to Webb Simpson, a college amateur who plays for Wake Forest on the Arnold Palmer Scholarship. Simpson played well, shooting 75-72, but missed the cut by two shots.
It's make or break time for Chris Riley. The guy famously known for winning his match with Woods on Saturday morning at the 2004 Ryder Cup and infamously known for saying he was too tired to compete in the afternoon loses his PGA Tour exemption following this season. That means he'll need to finish in the top 125 to keep his full playing privileges, but it's not going well so far. Riley has made the cut in four of seven starts, but has no finish better than T-31 and ranks 154th on the money list with only $59,124. The struggles aren't anything new for Riley, who finished 184th on the list last season.
"I would take Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and I'd take Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mother Teresa -- gotta put a chick in there."
-- Gary Player on "PGA Tour Sunday," discussing his dream foursome (or fivesome).
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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