John Huggan: Par for the coarse

Geoff Ogilvy, of Australia, hits from the 10th fairway during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, May 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Geoff Ogilvy, of Australia, hits from the 10th fairway during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, May 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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The Players has its merits, but Sawgrass’s crude 17th-hole sideshow means it will never be the ‘fifth major’ that PGA chief Tim Finchem craves

IT IS, one suspects, the topic of conversation PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem likes to avoid most. While the diminutive former Washington lobbyist may be the “big white chief” at the world’s most powerful and lucrative circuit, when it comes to the five most important, interesting and exciting events in golf “wee Timmy” is in need of a ladder.

Without a big lift up, Finchem just can’t reach any of the chairs at golf’s top table, where sit the Augusta National Golf Club (Masters), the United States Golf Association (US Open), the R&A (the Open Championship) and the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (USPGA). Throw in the biennial Ryder Cup matches between the United States and Europe, an event jointly run by the PGA of America and the European Tour, and Finchem’s misery is complete.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped him trying to change the status quo. For longer than anyone cares to remember, the PGA Tour has tried and tried and tried and tried to tell the world that this week’s Players Championship – the biggest event on the biggest tour – is the so-called “fifth major”. It hasn’t worked and the argument has, over the years, become so tired that the very mention of it is enough to send most observers to sleep.

“The ladies and the seniors don’t do themselves any favours when it comes to how many majors they have,” points out former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “Constantly chopping and changing, adding and subtracting, is absurd and totally devalues what should be the biggest events in the game. So the ‘is the Players Championship the fifth major?’ question is a non-starter, a non-argument – one barely worth discussing because it isn’t ever going to happen. Thank goodness.”

Still, it would be wrong not to acknowledge just how good an event the Players Championship is, or has become since its inception back in 1974 when, surprise, surprise, Jack Nicklaus was the inaugural champion. For one thing, the field is as good as it gets, consistently statistically stronger than almost all of the majors and containing almost every one of the game’s leading 100 practitioners. And, for another, the TPC Sawgrass course, while far from perfect, has produced an extraordinary variety of champions. To its credit, Pete Dye’s design has shown itself to be playable by those of all shapes and sizes, strengths and weaknesses.

“The golf course is a hard one to categorise,” confirms Ogilvy. “While I’m not sure anyone would place it in their top 25 courses in the world, it does have an amazing capacity for identifying all sorts of winners. It is a layout that asks every player to hit a lot of different shots. For example, you need to draw the second shot to the second green. A fade is required off the fourth tee. There are holes where an iron off the tee is the best option. And there are others where you have to go with a driver. Length gets its due reward. Yet there’s a par-5 – the 16th – that is easily in range for anyone hitting two good shots.

“So it’s a course that gives everyone a chance. Which is surely why no one has dominated the place on a regular basis. The list of winners is really diverse. And that is unusual. Almost every course we professionals play in the world, there are two or three or four guys who always seem to show up no matter what. Fred Couples at Riviera, Tiger and Phil at Augusta. Those guys can be relied upon to perform well on those courses. It just suits their eye or their game or both.

“But Sawgrass doesn’t do that. Every year the leaderboard looks almost nothing like the year before. Phil has popped up and won, but hasn’t done much apart from that. Tiger won in 2001 and has barely been seen in contention since. Instead, every year six or seven new and different quality players are vying for the title on Sunday afternoon. Every year. And I have no idea why. It just seems to be the type of course that gives everyone a chance. It’s not crazy long. It’s not crazy narrow. You have to move the ball both ways.”

Another factor in the wide range of winners was the switch of dates back in 2007. Traditionally held two weeks before the Masters in late March, the Players now takes place maybe six weeks later, a fact that makes a big difference in both the temperature and how the course plays.

“The course went from a tough version of what we play every week – narrow, long rough, firm greens by Sunday – to something that is none of those things,” confirms Ogilvy, pictured right. “I actually preferred it the way it was. I’m not a big fan of putting or chipping on from Bermuda grass. I grew up on greens and courses that were mostly poa [Annual Meadow Grass], so I’m never going to be that comfortable on Bermuda.

“Still, no other TPC [tournament players club] asks you to hit a bigger range of shots or be a more complete player. It asks a lot of the right questions. And that makes it ideal for identifying the best player. You can’t win there without playing very well. Which sounds silly. But, take it from me, there are courses on tour where you can win just by putting great. Or by getting up and down from everywhere. You can’t do just those things at Sawgrass and win. You have to do everything well. Maybe that’s why it is so hard to dominate. It’s rare for anyone to bring every part of his game to an event.”

For all that the championship is, upon close inspection, possessed of so many subtle nuances, it is for one thing that the Players is best known – the island green at the short 17th.

On the upside, this gaudy sideshow of a hole has brought the event huge publicity and notoriety over the years. There is apparently nothing the casual fan likes better than to see golf balls struck by well-known players disappearing under water. That, apparently, is fun, akin to the multi-car smashes that seem to draw so many spectators to the otherwise mind-numbing spectacle of NASCAR racing or Formula One.

On the other hand, the presence of such a famously wicked and unforgiving hole – and its occasionally enormous influence on the destination of the title – has done much to hold back the hoped-for steady progress of the event towards major championship status. Golf’s predominantly conservative core audience is less impressed by a hole where every player is asked to hit basically the same shot time after tedious time. So it is that the Players has never been more than the stereotypical down-market tabloid or comic book of golf – blue bloods tend not to read red tops – while the majors are the thought-provoking, erudite broadsheets.

Let’s not be too sniffy though. Apart from the nonsense that is the 17th, Sawgrass is a sound test of golf, with the 16th and 18th holes typically providing the sort of risk-reward scenarios so beloved of television networks. As Ogilvy says, “it takes a lot of good golf to win there”.