The Masters and the U.S. Open are my two favorite golf tournaments to watch each year, but this week’s The PLAYERS is a close third.
It is the only non-major (it is known by many as the 5th major) my wife affords me major status and tolerates my incessant watching each day.
In fact, recently she asked me if I had anything planned for the weekend. I responded with two words – The PLAYERS.
What makes this tournament so special? It is a few things.
The players absolutely embrace the tournament as their own and they are going to bring it big time here. It is one of the tournaments that ranks high on the “want to win,” list of the players.
Second, it is the third stop in a brutal three-week Florida swing. Starting at PGA National, followed by Bay Hill, and now at the TPC Sawgrass, the courses demand the best off all the players.
You get your scoring assaults at certain courses, but not with these three. The pros must work here just to break par. Sure, there are the occasional low rounds, but there is plenty of agony to go with it.
Finally, The PLAYERS to me features the toughest two closing holes of the year. The course overall is a beast.
The Pete Dye design often forces players to make uncomfortable shots to take the shortest route to the hole. Not necessarily the easiest way but the shortest.
But in the end, it comes down to the last two holes – the island green on No. 17, followed by the daunting, water-protected 18th is wonderful to watch.
It gives me an almost perverse pleasure to watch the players nervously walk to the 17th tee. It is a long, torturous walk, one that will be enhanced by fans being back in force this year at the tournament.
If they survive the par 3 that often makes or breaks a round in the Players, it is fun to watch the “dead man walking gait” while they move to the 18th tee.
This is one event where a 2-3 shot lead heading into the last two holes doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The margin of error is so little on the final two holes that one minor mistake could cost a player their chance to win the tournament.
There are plenty of tournaments where I almost turn the TV off is someone has a 2-3 stroke lead heading into the final two holes. Not here. Not at the Players.
I have had some of my favorite players win the event – Fred Couples, Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler – and here, more than anything else, you feel the nerves watching them hit their tee shots on those two holes.
Who can forget that in 1997, Couples aced No. 17, then two years later in the first round, he put his tee shot in the water. His third shot from the drop zone went in the hole for one of the greatest par-saves of all time – a shot now known as a “hole-in-three.”
Finally, 2001 brought one of the seminal calls in golf history when Woods holed a 60-foot, multiple break putt, prompting announcer Gary Koch to utter “better than most,” three times while the ball was rolling to the hole.
Even the playoff, if there is one, is riveting as they play a 3-hole aggregate on 16-17-18, and then if needed they go sudden death on 17-18-17.
It is not boring to be sure.
This week my Fantasy league is asking to pick three players and a bonus player whose last name starts with a W. The combined money won determines the weekly winner.’
Here are my four:
Corey Conners: The Canadian sensation is one of the most accurate players tee to green and that is vital to have any success here. He has played the tournament twice, making the cuts both times and finishing 9th last year.
Collin Morikawa: Had the lowest final round last year and it was his debut at the tournament so there is every reason to believe he finishes much better that the 41st he had on the board last year. Was second at Rivera in his last start and is the best ball-striker right now.
Justin Thomas: I feel compelled from a rooting stand point, I need either JT or Jordan Spieth on my team, so why not take the defending champ. It does seem to be feast or famine with JT, which is always a reason to be nervous. But when he has it going …
Mathew Wolff: My bonus pick. The kid has a ton of talent but was lost for a while. Seems to have found his groove again and here is hoping it kicks it full force this week. Most of the people in the contest have gone with other bonus players so I opted to take a bit of a reach here.
By Dennis Miller