Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 15, 2016

The Greens Were Stressed But Jason Day Wasn’t

Each May, when the PGA Tour makes its annual stop at TPC Sawgrass for The Players Championship, the golf media play up an imaginary controversy about the tournament’s place in men’s professional golf. Should The Players be recognized as every season’s fifth major? Players from superstars to journeymen are asked their opinion and pundits engage in grave debate with other pundits, as if in the answer to the query lay either the future ascendancy or ruination of the ancient game.

The Players is one of the most prestigious tournaments on the Tour’s schedule. Its $10.5 million purse is the largest of any tournament in the world. Its home, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, is among the most familiar golf courses in the world, thanks largely to the iconic island green 17th hole. The field, which includes the top fifty players in the official world rankings in addition to recent winners of the majors, Tour Championship, and WGC events, is always among the strongest assembled all year. In recognition of that the winner receives more world ranking points and, if he’s a member of the PGA Tour, more FedEx Cup points, than at other events except for the majors. And of course, it was created by the Tour as the one premier tournament each year that is run by and for the players themselves.

All this gives The Players much of the aura of a major, which is why the media ritual unfolds with mind-numbing regularity. But the laundry list of facts about the tournament, which in truth could be twice or thrice as long with the same result, is always outweighed by the one word answer of those arguing against such lofty status. The conclusive end to the argument is of course “tradition.”

Every great sport has its traditions, but few are as bound by them as golf. Even as the execution of the game itself changes with breathtaking speed thanks to technology, elements of the game remain hidebound by a slavish devotion to keeping things as they have always been. In the case of major tournaments, that means keeping the number at four. No matter that the four have changed over the decades. The majors were once the U.S. Open, Open Championship, and the U.S. and British Amateur Championships.

In the middle part of the last century, after Bobby Jones started the Masters in 1934 and as professional golfers were no longer looked upon as either mercenaries or hired help by the country club set, the importance of the two amateur events faded. But it was really not until Arnold Palmer made a point of traveling to Great Britain to participate in the Open Championship that the prestige of the oldest major was restored. Even then the Open and the PGA Championship were often contested in succeeding weeks in the 1960s, making participation in both problematic.

All that history is forgotten now, and tradition as the ultimate arbiter dictates that there will be four men’s majors, rendering each May’s debate about The Players little more than an exercise in hot air. That was particularly unfortunate this week, when the tournament resembled a major in one other important though not necessarily desirable way. For this week at The Players, as usually happens only at the occasional major tournament, the story was as much about the golf course at it was about the golf.

For two days a yielding Stadium Course gave up a startling number of low scores. In Thursday’s opening round six golfers fired 6-under par rounds of 66. Five more did them one better by coming home in 65. And all eleven of them were looking up at world number one Jason Day, who matched the course record with a round of 9-under 63. The low scoring continued on Friday, with eight golfers shooting 66 or better, including unheralded Colt Knost, who matched Day’s first round 63; and world number three Rory McIlroy, who would have done the same but for a closing bogey. Day was also among the low scorers in the second round, pairing his 63 with a 66 to set a 36-hole record for the event at 15-under par, four better than his closest competitor.

But even as talk turned to whether Day could best his countryman Greg Norman’s tournament record of 24-under par, the PGA Tour followed its usual practice of double cutting and double rolling the greens prior to Saturday’s third round. This despite the fact that the weather forecast called for bright sunshine, low humidity, and a freshening breeze. The inability of Tour officials to read the forecast turned an enjoyable golf tournament into a brutal test of survival.

The television coverage clearly showed the Stadium Course’s putting surfaces fading from rich green on Thursday to mossy yellow on Friday to burnt khaki on Saturday. Having failed to take the weather into account, the Tour then ignored the overstressed putting surfaces in making pin placement decisions for the third round. The result was a course with greens that bordered on the absurd, and putting results that followed suit. The greens were running at 14 or more on the stimpmeter, and pin placements on crowns meant that putts that missed were racing down dry and crusty slopes.

The first two rounds produced a total of 122 three-putts by the field. The third round alone, played after the cut and thus including a field roughly half the size of the original and limited to those golfers playing the best, resulted in 149 three-putts or worse. On one hole Sergio Garcia was not charged with a six-putt only because his first stroke with the putter was taken with the ball a few inches off the green.

At most events the scoring average goes down on the weekend, because those golfers not playing well have gone home. At The Players this year the third round average was the highest of the tournament. Not since the USGA’s debacle with the greens at Chambers Bay at last year’s U.S. Open has the condition of a course’s putting surfaces received so much, and so unwanted, attention. Memories of the 2004 Open at Shinnecock, when the USGA was forced to water greens between groups in an effort to keep them playable, were suddenly fresh in everyone’s mind. “Outrageous,” “shameful” and “crazy” were among the printable reactions of players who staggered in after rounds that exceeded five hours.

The conditions quickly eliminated any thought Day might have had of chasing Norman’s scoring record. His third round 73, which included a pair of double-bogeys, was under the circumstances as good a performance as either of his first two trips around the Stadium Course. The 65 returned by 47-year old journeyman Ken Duke, one of just six scores below par, was described by many as the best round of the entire year on the Tour.

The Tour attempted to make things right for Sunday’s final round, eliminating the double cutting and rolling and taking conditions into account in making pin placements. Fortunately for Tour officials, The Players had produced a 54-hole leader whose game is in a place where even absurd conditions don’t serve as much of a distraction. After Day rolled in an eighteen foot birdie putt on the 10th hole what little suspense there was about the outcome dried up faster than the greens had on Saturday.

With his four shot victory the 28-year old from Queensland now has eight PGA Tour wins in the last fifteen months. He’s five for five since last August after holding the third round lead. He also joins Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Tiger Woods as the only players with two wire-to-wire Tour wins in a single season; though this season is far from over. When they’re not debating the status of The Players, golf’s pundits have lately loved discussing the relative merits of the new “Big Three” of Day, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. As he tightens his grip on the number one ranking, Jason Day is working hard to make that debate imaginary as well.

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