PLAY­ERS CHAM­PI­ONSHIP

Play­ing TPC Saw­grass from the short­est tees and from the tips. By David Owen

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents -

IN early March, I trav­elled to TPC Saw­grass, the home club of the PGA Tour, to play the Sta­dium Course from the tees the pros use dur­ing the Play­ers Cham­pi­onship. Most av­er­age golfers don’t truly un­der­stand how much worse we are than the guys we watch on TV. Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, the dif­fer­ence be­tween us and them isn’t the dif­fer­ence be­tween our hand­i­caps and “scratch”; it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween roller skates and race­cars. I learned that les­son in­deli­bly eight years ago, on an­other Golf Digest as­sign­ment, when I played Peb­ble Beach from the US Open tees. My handicap in those days was 6, yet I shot what my fa­ther and his friends used to call “even par” (in the bond mar­ket, par is 100). So when I pulled up to the bag drop at Saw­grass, I had no il­lu­sions, other than my stan­dard fan­tasy that at any mo­ment I might turn into an­other per­son.

From the Play­ers tees, the Sta­dium Course is just un­der 7 250 yards (6 630 me­tres).That’s semi-short­ish by mod­ern big-tour­na­ment stan­dards but vir­tu­ally end­less by mine. I’m 63 years old, and my home course, in Con­necti­cut, is 5 600 yards (5 121m) if you go around twice (it has nine holes). I took up golf late, at 36. My Handicap In­dex is 7.9 and ris­ing. I vividly re­mem­ber feel­ing torn, 20 years ago, be­tween sand wedge and pitch­ing wedge from 115 me­tres; the same shot now is of­ten an 8-iron.

The day be­fore I sub­jected my­self to my TPC or­deal, I played the Sta­dium Course from its most baby­ish tees: the greens, which a caddie, af­ter one slip, was care­ful not to re­fer to as “the ladies’ tees.” From those tees, the course is just 5 019 yards (4 590m), or ten 200-me­tre drives shorter than it is dur­ing the tour­na­ment. My idea was that by mov­ing all the way up, I might es­tab­lish a use­ful statistical base­line and give my­self a much-needed warmup. Win­ter at home had been bru­tal, and dur­ing the pre­vi­ous three months, I’d played just two rounds, both dur­ing a non­golf trip to Cal­i­for­nia.

That’s my first ex­cuse, but not my last.

SAW­GRASS AT 4 590 ME­TRES

Iplayed Saw­grass for the first time in the early 1990s. Most golf cour­ses are hard to tell apart on tele­vi­sion, but when I watched the Play­ers the next year, I recog­nised many of the holes.Those holes have un­der­gone sev­eral ren­o­va­tions and jun­gle-re­moval projects since then, and the club­house has been trans­formed from a wood-and-glass fly­ing saucer into the sum­mer home of the Medi­cis, but the Sta­dium Course is still as vis­ually strik­ing as it was when I first saw it. Part of what you get for your un­nerv­ing green fee ($500, plus or mi­nus, dur­ing prime play­ing sea­son) is happy jolts of TV fa­mil­iar­ity – a big bonus for a golf-ori­ented couch potato.

For my round from the green tees, I was joined by Alex Ur­ban, who works in the PGA Tour’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fice and has a handicap that’s within a round­ing er­ror of mine.The starter be­gan to give us his stan­dard lec­ture about choos­ing ap­pro­pri­ate tees based on our driv­ing dis­tance, but we waved him off, be­cause we were headed so far for­ward that we could barely see the mark­ers from where we stood. Be­cause my home course is so dinky, I had an ini­tial ad­van­tage over Alex. Lowhand­i­cap vis­i­tors to my club see the yardages on the score­card and imag­ine how cool it will be when they break the course record on their first try.Then, not in­fre­quently, they dou­ble- and triple-bo­gey their way into obliv­ion.

Like many golfers, I fan­ta­sise about how awe­some it would be if I could hit my driver as far as Dustin John­son hits his. But when you play from 130 yards ahead of where John­son plays, you do hit your driver as far as he hits his, if not fur­ther – and then, when you get to your ball, you re­alise that your big­gest prob­lems are still ahead of you. The world’s best play­ers are in­sanely long – but they aren’t only in­sanely long.

I man­aged to par the first hole with­out touch­ing the fair­way or hit­ting the green in reg­u­la­tion.And I

parred the se­cond hole, too, de­spite hav­ing driven into a fair­way bunker – al­though not ev­ery­one would count a 381-yard (349m) hole as a par 5. I had brought my favourite golf club: a dis­con­tin­ued Nike 16-de­gree driver, which is ba­si­cally a 4-wood with a huge head. I call it Baby Driver, and I usu­ally hit it about 185 me­tres, a use­ful dis­tance on a cou­ple of holes on my home course. The wind blew steadily and hard dur­ing the round, and when it was at our backs, Baby Driver was ac­tu­ally too much. But I choked down and used it any­way.

Alex, mean­while, was wrestling with the short-hole para­dox. Be­cause he was long enough to drive most of the par 4s, he un­der­stand­ably tried to drive them; then, when he missed, he found him­self in trou­ble that he had trou­ble get­ting out of.When tour play­ers sud­denly be­gan bomb­ing their tee shots, ar­chi­tects mostly re­sponded by mak­ing cour­ses longer. But if the goal is to make life harder for su­per-long hit­ters, mak­ing holes su­per­long is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. The par 4s that give big hit­ters fits are more of­ten the short ones – like the 10th at Riviera, the third at Au­gusta Na­tional, and a cou­ple of the par 4s from the green tees at Saw­grass.

Any­way, I shot 40 on the front, in­clud­ing an en­tirely un­nec­es­sary one-chip-andthree-putt dou­ble bo­gey on the 121-yard eighth, on which I was quite pleased with my tee shot un­til it landed 10 yards short of the green.Then I birdied the 10th – here we go, baby! – but im­me­di­ately fol­lowed that birdie with two more stupid dou­ble bo­geys. Alex parred five holes in a row on our se­cond nine, and we both came close to birdieing 17. If we’d been com­pet­ing, I’d have won the front and the over­all, and he’d have won the back, but nei­ther of us had much to brag about. I shot a 10-over­par 82. On to the tips!

SAW­GRASS AT 6 630 ME­TRES

On the big course, the next day, I played with Ste­wart Moore, who also works in the tour’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fice. He’s older than Alex but hits the ball even fur­ther. He played col­lege golf roughly 20 years ago, then com­peted on var­i­ous mini­tours. He gave up golf al­most en­tirely eight years ago, when his son was born, and now plays hardly at all – al­though he didn’t look as though he’d for­got­ten very much.

For me, play­ing with some­one as tal­ented as Ste­wart was a mixed bless­ing. On the one hand, I was im­mensely re­lieved to be ac­com­pa­nied by a golfer who looked as though he be­longed on the Play­ers tees. On the other hand, I don’t think I ever play worse than I do when I’m with some­one I’ve just met who hits his driver 80 or 100 yards fur­ther than I hit mine.

I swung so hard on the first tee that I popped my ball al­most straight up and into some pine trees on the left – and so short that my caddie and I found it only af­ter walk­ing 50 yards back from the spot where we’d be­gun to look.Then: punch, top, smother, chunk, or some­thing like that, for a triple-bo­gey 7 that felt like a 10. I re­alised two holes later that I was still wear­ing my bi­fo­cals (an­other ex­cuse), al­though I don’t think that was re­ally my prob­lem.

Ste­wart got off to a great start. He bo­geyed the first hole, but then parred three in a row. He told me later that as we walked to the fifth tee he was think­ing, Hmm, just one over af­ter four. Hav­ing that thought was a fa­tal er­ror, of course. On the sev­enth hole, I got to tee off first for the first time, be­cause, Ste­wart said, “You don’t shank two in a row and keep the tee.” (Ac­tu­ally, the tee was still his – his dou­ble beat my triple – but I took it any­way.) A sen­si­ble strat­egy on a course that’s too big for you is to treat the par 4s as par 5s, and the par 5s as par 6s.And I was more than will­ing to do that, but from the Play­ers tees there were sev­eral holes on which sim­ply get­ting a ball into play was right at the cusp of what I could man­age.

The tour­na­ment tees on 15 were al­most 200 yards be­hind the tees that Alex and I had played the day be­fore, and the space be­tween them was filled with a pond over­hung by trees. I needed two tries to reach the far shore, and then got into worse trou­ble. I ended up with a 9.

My only de­cent holes were the two par 3s on the back: the 13th, where I sank a 60-foot down­hill birdie putt that my caddie (who had also played on mini-tours) read per­fectly; and the 17th, where I came within a cou­ple of cen­time­tres of sink­ing a 50-foot up­hill birdie putt (ditto).

Dur­ing my 39-over-par 111, I lost just three or four balls. (Or maybe five.) And I saw a bald ea­gle, a bunch of ospreys, and a tree full of roost­ing pel­i­cans. And when the Play­ers be­gins, on May 10, I’ll be humbly glued to my set.

The club­house has changed since the au­thor’s first visit.

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