If you're on, it's a beautiful thing at TPC Sawgrass
Unlike the arduous tasks and lofty scores that are associated with some of the majors, the Players Championship is a fair test.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Once upon a time, there was a group of golfers who traveled to Augusta, Ga., for the year's first major championship. The wind howled, the greens were fast and their scores soared. "This tournament is too hard!" they cried.
Later in the year, that same group of golfers happened upon the U.S. Open for the year's second major championship. The course was long, the rough was gnarly and once again their scores soared. "This tournament is too tricky!" they claimed.
In between, the golfers came to the Players Championship, technically not a major but the next-biggest event of the year. Good shots were rewarded with good results. Bad shots were penalized with bad results. And the golfers were overjoyed by what they considered to be a satisfactory course setup. "This tournament is just right!" they crowed.
Ask every world-class golfer how he'd like host venues for the most important tournaments to be set up and the one word you'll hear more often than any other is "fair." Not easy, mind you, but fair. So it's all too appropriate that the tournament named for the players is collectively among their favorites of the year, based on the widely held opinion that TPC Sawgrass is a fair test of golf.
What does that mean, exactly?
"If you're hitting the ball well, you know, you can birdie every hole. But at the same time, if you're just a little bit off, you know, just in the rough or on the wrong side of the fairway, you have to realize that par is a good score and just move on," said Sergio Garcia, who grabbed the lead with a 6-under 66. "You know, I think that's the beauty of this course."
Thursday's opening round yielded a somewhat benign scoring average of 73.66, with final numbers ranging from Sergio's 66 to an 11-over 83 from J.P. Hayes. Perhaps the most telling stats: Every single player in the field carded at least one bogey, and all but three who completed the round made at least one birdie.
"If you're playing well, you can score, but if you're off a little bit, this golf course you can make a double on any hole," said Brett Quigley, who shot 70. "I think that's just a sign of a good golf course."
No kvetching. No complaining. It's a rare sight at a world-class event these days when the majority of players walk off the course with nothing but the highest of praise -- even those who didn't fare so well.
"Obviously, when you hit it bad like I did today, the course seems harder than it is," said Steve Stricker, who shot 5-over 77. "But it's out there. You've just got to drive it in the fairways and knock it on the greens and pick your places."
This comes in stark contrast to opinions toward each of the year's first two majors. There's been plenty of debate over whether the Masters and U.S. Open have simply become too difficult, appealing only to those who prefer watching wrecks to watching races. The former event has achieved recent notoriety for the disappearance of any oohs and ahhs echoing through Augusta National in the final round; just last month, Trevor Immelman staked a claim to the lead after 18 holes and went on to win, with no player besting 67 for the week. Meanwhile, the Open has been devoid of red numbers for even longer, with no champion finishing under par since 2004.
Focus on climbing the leaderboard here has led to an influx of excitement over the years rather than a feeling of last man standing. Call it playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win.
Asked whether he liked these conditions more than those at the majors, Steve Lowery responded, "Yeah, I think so. The golf course is not overly long. If you do hit the good shots, you've got a chance to make some birdies. It's a lot more fair."
"What you want is a chance for big swings on the leaderboard, and I think this golf course brings that to the plate," said Paul Goydos, who shot 4-under 68."Augusta National used to bring that to the plate."
Then again, Mother Nature has a way of taking the air out of fair. Or blowing more air around. Gusting winds of up to 35 mph are predicted to invade Friday's second round, likely sending that scoring average to new heights, no matter how fair the setup.
"We don't want a championship where three of the four days you're trying to play this course in 20 to 30 mile-an-hour winds. It's not built for that," said Fred Couples, who began his 25th career appearance in this event with a 2-under 70. "Other than that, it's going to firm up and play hard. There aren't even ball marks out there. You just kind of bend over to make it look like you're doing something."
Doing something but not complaining. For one day, at least, the Players Championship wasn't too hard or too tricky. It was just right.
Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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