Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 21, 2019

The Most Humbling Of Games Strikes Again

We’ve all seen the warning, the tiny graphics at the bottom of the screen as a commercial for the newest sporty coupe plays on our flat screen. “Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt.” That’s good advice for the high-priced motorcar, and as all fans know, for sports in general. We admire the pitcher who brings high heat at more than a hundred miles an hour, and perhaps even more so the slugger who can turn on that pitch and send it over the left field wall. But only the totally deranged among us would pretend to be able to fling a ball so hard, much less stand in the batter’s box against such a missile.

The disconnect is equally true in other sports. The players in a country club tennis match can only imagine what it’s like to face Federer, the YMCA basketball game participants may pretend to be Steph Curry but they know that’s a fantasy, and pretty much no one in the weekend flag football league sees him or herself racing around the field at Gillette Stadium.

Then there is golf. Make no mistake, the disconnect between amateurs and professionals is usually as true in the sport for life as in every other one, as was demonstrated at the Players Championship last weekend. The 11th hole at TPC Sawgrass was testament to that reality. A par-5 measuring 558 yards from the championship tees, the 11th begins as a straight shot through towering loblolly pines, with a massive waste bunker on the left. The main fairway is then separated from the green by a large pond and another expansive sand trap that fronts the putting surface.

For we mere mortals playing the 11th would require two stout hits with the longest clubs in our bags, a driver off the tee and a fairway wood second. If both were well struck that would leave a mid-iron approach, a hold your breath shot over the water and sand, thankfully with a bailout area on the far side of the green.

But for the pros the 11th is a birdie hole, like many par-5s, one on which a score of par (much less anything worse), actually loses ground to much of the field. As the sun began to wester last Friday afternoon, a series of familiar faces came strolling down the 11th fairway, and as fans spread over the gentle hillock beside the green watched, most made a challenging hole for amateurs look like child’s play.

First there were a pair of Justins, Englishman Rose and American Thomas, both easily clearing the hazard with their second shots. Then came Bryson DeChambeau and Bubba Watson, the former with his idiosyncratic, upright, stiff-armed swing, and the latter just showing off by hitting an iron from 261 yards out. Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm followed, though the Friday spectators had no way of knowing that forty-eight hours later the hole would begin Rahm’s undoing in the final round. Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, and eventual Players winner Rory McIlroy were next, with Mickelson being that rarest of pro, one who was forced to lay up with his second because of a particularly wayward drive. Of all the golfers who challenged the par-5 by going for the green in two, not a single one came close to rinsing his ball in the hazard, and only a solitary shot landed in the adjacent bunker.

But unlike so many other sports, golf can be a decidedly democratic pastime. If Friday afternoon’s action at the TPC’s 11th hole reminded fans of the exceptional ability of touring pros, that morning’s play at the course’s signature par-3 served notice that the game can bring even the mighty to their knees.  Fans may never rise to the level of the pros, but sometimes the pros come crashing down to earth.

Walking through the spectator entrance from the TPC’s sprawling parking lot, fans first pass a massive merchandise tent and then various displays and kiosks of the tournament’s many sponsors. Immediately after this glut of rank commercialism, the first glimpse of the golf course is at its most famous spot, the short 17th hole with the island green that even non-golf fans would recognize. By Sunday afternoon the spectator areas surrounding the hole would be mobbed, but on Friday morning there was still plenty of space for newly arrived fans to spread out on the grass and watch the play while planning their day at the Players. In a coincidence of perfect timing, one of the first groups to appear across the pond, playing the par-5 16th hole, was the power threesome of former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, reigning Masters titlist Patrick Reed, and Tiger Woods, the most famous and popular golfer in the world.

The building crowd cheered as one when Woods rolled in a birdie putt on the 16th, and anticipation rose as the three contestants made the short walk from that green to the tee of the 137-yard 17th. While the short little hole has been known to give even the best players fits when the wind blows hard, this morning’s breeze is mild, barely ruffling the flags on the hospitality tents. Woods steps in with likely no more than a wedge in his hand, and as he does so the crowd goes quiet even as thousands of cell phone cameras are aimed in his direction. The 14-time major winner swings, and his ball launches into the sky. But the cheers that are poised in fans’ throats are never heard. Woods pulls his shot left and the ball lands near the back of the green, bounces once and rolls a short way down the grass walkway leading from the shore, then rolls over the bulkhead at the back of the island and plops into the water.

Even as Woods stares expressionless at the green, gasps compete with groans among the spectators. Once Simpson and Reed have safely navigated the watery expanse between tee and green, Woods and caddie Joe LaCava make their way to the drop area, a patch of grass hard by the gallery ropes and less than 90 yards from the green. Many in the crowd surge forward to the front of the viewing area, and once again the camera phones come out as Woods prepares to hit what will be his third stroke on the hole. From this spot Sergio Garcia once saved par by holing out after his initial shot from the regular tee met the same fate as Tiger’s just has.

No similar miracle is in store today. Woods swings again, and his ball again flies to the back of the green where it lands hard and takes one big bounce into the water, stunning the crowd into silence. Finally, after two rinsed golf balls and two penalty strokes, Woods manages to keep his fifth stroke dry, and two putts later he exits the 17th with a quadruple-bogey seven.

In his storied career Woods had just played his 1,229th hole in competition at TPC Sawgrass. Fans searching for a positive note might say that it took him that many holes to finally record a quad on this challenging layout. But every dedicated golfer, whether they play the game for fun or for a living, knows that in golf the course can rise up and smite anyone. From the weekend hacker to the greatest player of his time, we all know that we are always just one swing away from being totally and thoroughly humbled.

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