HORSES FOR COUR­SES?

It’s more of a lot­tery at TPC Saw­grass

New Straits Times - - Sport - PHIL MICK­EL­SON TIGER WOODS

PONTE VE­DRA BEACH

KIM Si-Woo won The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship and the mys­tery deep­ened. Not be­cause of any num­ber, whether it was his age (21), his world rank­ing (75) or his po­si­tion in the FedEx Cup (132) go­ing into the week. Ian Poul­ter could have won and it would have made just as much sense, which at the TPC Saw­grass means no sense at all.

One of the pop­u­lar adages in golf is there are horses for cour­ses.

At the TPC Saw­grass, it’s more of a lot­tery.

No mat­ter the pedi­gree of the player or the state of his game, there is no telling how he will do at the Play­ers Sta­dium Course.

The no­to­ri­ous Pete Dye de­sign, built out of a for­mer swamp, doesn’t let any­one get a han­dle on it.

Ja­son Day is the most re­cent ex­am­ple. He missed the cut in 2015 by post­ing an 81 in the sec­ond round. The next year he set the 36-hole scor­ing record (15un­der 129) and won by four shots. And for an encore? He closed with an 80 and fin­ished 17 shots be­hind in tie for 60th.

The best ex­am­ple might be Phil Mick­el­son.

He won The Play­ers in 2007, the first year it moved from March to May. At that point in his PGA Tour ca­reer, Mick­el­son had 31 vic­to­ries and three ma­jors, yet only two top 10s at the TPC Saw­grass with­out ever com­ing close to win­ning.

In the 10 years that fol­lowed his lone vic­tory, dur­ing which he has won 11 times and two more ma­jors, Lefty hasn’t cracked the top 10. He missed the cut four straight times un­til this year.

“I can’t be­lieve I’ve ac­tu­ally won here,” Mick­el­son said two years ago af­ter he missed the cut.

Pre­dic­tions in golf are point­less with few ex­cep­tions, such as Tiger Woods at Tor­rey Pines or Fire­stone dur­ing his best years.

Af­ter the first round of the PGA Tour stop at Tor­rey in 2008, a cad­die stood be­hind the 18th green on the South Course to watch Woods open with a 67 and said, “He just won two tour­na­ments with one round.” Woods went on to win the Buick In­vi­ta­tional by eight shots, and he re­turned in June to win the US Open on a shat­tered left leg.

Saw­grass evoked dif­fer­ent com­men­tary.

“How about that?” Woods said to cad­die Joe LaCava when he won The Play­ers for the sec­ond time in 2013. There was sar­cas­tic sur­prise in his tone, un­usual for Woods be­cause he ex­pected to win any­where.

No course was more con­found­ing for Woods, who won at a greater rate than any­one on the PGA Tour. Even when Woods was close to un­beat­able (when he wasn’t in the process of chang­ing his swing), his record at the TPC Saw­grass didn’t match up with any other golf course he played.

Bay Hill also was feast or famine for Woods, though at least he won it eight times. In his 16 ap­pear­ances at The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship — 12 of them as the No 1 player in the world — Woods won twice and was in con­tention just one other time.

There was one mo­ment when the stars aligned for Woods over the for­mer Florida swamp. He was run­ner-up in 2000 when Hal Sutton had the right club that day, and Woods won the fol­low­ing year by one shot over Vi­jay Singh. And then, com­ing off a vic­tory at Bay Hill, he re­turned to Saw­grass to try to be­come the first back-to-back win­ner.

Woods never broke 70 and shot over par in the fi­nal round of any tour­na­ment for the first time in more than two years.

And then three weeks later, he won the Mas­ters.

“I swear, I re­ally played well this week,” Woods said that day. “Just in the wrong side, maybe a yard here and yard there.”

That’s the nature of the TPC Saw­grass.

One mea­sure of a golf course is the qual­ity of the win­ners it pro­duces.

The last nine Bri­tish Open cham­pi­ons at Muir­field — and 14 of the 16 dat­ing to 1892 — are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Muir­field is con­sid­ered the purest and fairest of the links.

Does that ap­ply at The Play­ers?

Sure, all but 12 cham­pi­ons have won ma­jors. Kim was only the sixth win­ner at Saw­grass who was out of the top 50 in the 31 years that the world rank­ing has been around.

Three of its cham­pi­ons — Day, Woods and Greg Nor­man — won at No 1 in the world. David Du­val reached No 1 by win­ning in 1999. Dur­ing one stretch from 1992 through 2004, 11 of the 13 win­ners were among the top 20 in the world.

But that doesn’t ex­plain the ab­sence of so many good play­ers, not be­cause they haven’t won but be­cause they’ve had so few chances.

Vi­jay never won. Ernie Els never came close. Tom Wat­son and Nick Faldo never won, ei­ther. And while he’s still only 28, is it pos­si­ble Rory McIl­roy might be on that list one day?

Dustin John­son?

Check out John­son’s re­sults in his pre­vi­ous five tour­na­ments: 31-1-1-2. The game’s dom­i­nant player shot 68 in the fi­nal round at The Play­ers. It was only his third time in 30 rounds at the TPC Saw­grass that he broke 70.

He tied for 12th, his best fin­ish ever. AP

I can’t be­lieve I’ve ac­tu­ally won here. I swear, I re­ally played well this week. Just in the wrong side, maybe a yard here and yard there.

Kim Si-Woo of South Korea cel­e­brates af­ter putting in on the eigh­teenth green to win The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship on Sun­day.

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