Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 15, 2011

For A Day At Least, The Old Guys Rule

This week the PGA Tour paid its 30th annual visit to Pete Dye’s most famous design, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. The Players’ Championship began in 1974 when Jack Nicklaus posted a 2-stroke victory over J. C. Snead, but the tournament really gained identity in 1982 when it moved to its now permanent home. Even the most casual golf fan recognizes the par-3 17th hole’s island green.

The 17th is the middle hole of a three hole finish that provides ample opportunity for high drama. The 16th is a short par-5, reachable in two for most of the field assuming their drive finds the fairway. But there is water down the entire right side of the hole and hard by the right and back sides of the green. The hole’s yardage brings eagle into play; the water introduces double-bogey.

On the other side of the manmade amphitheater which is always filled with fans is the 17th. On dry land the hole would be nondescript, a short par-3 often requiring nothing more than a pitching wedge for the pros. But eliminate all margins for error by replacing the dry land with water, add the swirling winds of a Florida spring, and the nondescript becomes terrifying.

The course’s home hole is a long, demanding par-4 with water running down the entire left side and trees guarding the right. The green, especially its front portion, banks from right to left. Sunday morning, as the field finished up the rain-delayed third round, Graeme McDowell led by three when he hit his approach shot on the 18th from the right rough. The ball landed just short of the green, bounced onto the right front of the putting surface and promptly took a hard left turn like a NASCAR racer. It raced down the slope of the putting surface, through the tiny strip of fringe, and bounced over the bulkhead and into the water. The resulting double-bogey trimmed McDowell’s 54-hole lead to one.

Ranked fifth in the world and the defending U.S. Open champion, McDowell would implode Sunday afternoon, shooting 79 and tumbling down the leader board. For all that this PGA Tour season has been about youth, when the leaders came through those final three holes late Sunday afternoon, the three players who had a chance to win were all in their forties.

The first of those was 46-year old Paul Goydos. The popular journeyman had moved up the leader board with four birdies in six holes in the middle part of his round. He came to the 16th at -10, three shots behind David Toms and two behind K. J. Choi. Going for the green in two, he pulled his second shot into a pot bunker left of the green. With all of the water on the right side, it’s not uncommon to see golfers bail out to the left. With the pin tucked on the back right of the green, as Goydos stood over his bunker shot he could see nothing but water beyond the flag. Not surprisingly, the shot stopped well short of the hole. But then he drained the birdie putt from more than 20 feet to move to -11.

Goydos had birdie chances at both 17 and 18, but neither was easy. His putt on 17 was lightning fast down a slope, and on 18 he was well right of the flag. While he played the final three holes in one under par to become the leader in the clubhouse, he wasn’t able to get any closer to the two leaders.

When the final group came to the 16th tee the 44-year old Toms was -13 and still one shot ahead of the 40-year old Choi. Toms hit his drive down the right side into the first cut of rough, while the golfing gods smiled on Choi. His drive caromed off a tree and came to rest in the left rough. His adventure with the local timber left Choi too far back to think about going for the green, and he hit iron down the fairway.

With the lead and having seen his closest competitor forced to lay up, Toms then attempted a shot that he really didn’t need to hit. He pulled a hybrid from his bag and went for the green in two. The winner of the 2001 PGA Championship caught the ball a bit thin, and it splashed into the water, short and right of the green. After the penalty stroke, Toms’ fourth shot was safely on the green, but well right of the hole. He bogeyed, dropping into a tie at -12. He was lucky it was no worse. Choi’s third was a masterful pitch and run that stopped 6 feet from the hole; but the Korean missed the birdie putt.

Both players hit 9-iron on the 17th, but Choi had the better result. His ball stopped 8 feet below the hole while Toms’ shot drifted dangerously right, landing on the green with little to spare and rolling back up against the grass collar at the edge of the putting surface. For the second hole in a row, Toms then made a curious decision. He chose to putt rather than chip the ball, forcing him to drop his putter steeply through the higher grass behind the ball. Not surprisingly, the ball hopped straight up into the air. While it was on line for the cup, the hop robbed the shot of speed and it stopped short. From 8 feet Choi then hit a perfectly paced putt. For about 7 feet 8 inches it was clearly left of the hole, only to turn dead right as it lost speed in its final few rolls and drop into the cup for a birdie and the lead.

If Toms showed questionable judgment on the 16th and 17th, on the 18th he showed enormous heart. With twelve career wins, but none since the beginning of 2006, it would be understandable if he were content to play for checks and await his fiftieth birthday and the Senior Tour. Instead, on one of the hardest holes on the course, he hit perhaps his best drive of the day, long and in the center of the fairway. His iron from 181 yards was hole high, 15 feet right of the hole. His putt poured into the very heart of the hole for only the fourth birdie of the day on the Stadium Course’s final hole. When Choi got up and down for par from just off the right front of the green the two veterans had finished regulation tied at -13.

Every tournament has to have a winner, even if sometimes one might wish that two worthy opponents could be named co-champions. At the end of a long day of golf, with most of the third round completed in the morning and all of the final 18 played in the afternoon, it’s understandable that one player might, just for a crucial moment, lose focus. So it was when Toms and Choi returned to the 17th for a sudden-death playoff. Both hit 9-irons safely on the green, both well left of the hole. Choi had the longer and faster putt, but stroked it with beautiful pace. The ball stopped just a couple of feet past the hole. Toms went next, and watched his birdie attempt slide just by the left side of the hole, stopping perhaps three feet by on the other side. They both had putts that touring pros will make 99 times out of 100. But for David Toms, this was the 100th. His short par attempt never touched the hole, and moments later K. J. Choi became the winner of the Players’ Championship.

As is often the case in playoffs, it was an ending that was as shocking as it was sudden, a moment of both triumph and despair; a reminder as if one were needed that at golf’s highest level, every single shot, from the impossible to the routine, really does matter.

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