Taking in the action at The Players Championship from Monday through Sunday was a new experience for me.
Prior to this week, 99 percent of my golf reporting has come through watching the telecast, but being on-site is a completely different experience. The media center buzz can get you caught up in storylines that you would otherwise ignore and walking inside the ropes reminded me of a few things that I might have swept under the rug.
Si Woo Kim is the real deal
Don’t let anyone tell you that Kim’s win was a fluke or an upset. He will be a star. It was shocking to me to see how many reports focused on the fact that his 2017 struggles put him last in the all-around ranking recently, while ignoring the fact that Kim has been in the midst of a back injury and a swing change. The 21-year-old became the youngest player to ever earn a Tour card at age 17. Just last year, he won the Wyndham Championship and finished 17th in the FedExCup race while possessing effortless power and excellent touch around the greens.
The slimmest of margins of error
I walked with Blayne Barber’s group for a good portion the first two rounds, which served as a reminder of how small errors can turn into leaderboard plummets. The third-year player was locked in during Round 1 and held the lead after birdieing four of his previous eight holes and he striped a drive down the fifteenth hole. He missed his first shot in sometime approaching the 15th’s front flag and caught the front-right pot bunker. It was hardly a bad miss – only about 5 yards from the flag– but it was the wrong miss because it left him a short-sided bunker shot with a green sloping away hard into a swale. He hit a good but not great bunker shot that released, catching the ridge and rolling helplessly down the swale. A few moments later he was walking off the green with a double and two shots out of the lead.
The bunker on 15 where Blayne Barber missed
On Friday Barber got it going again, making a few key putts for par and birdieing the 12th and 16th. When he stepped on the 17th tee at 4 under, he was right back in the thick of the tournament. One fanned iron into a strong wind and he found the water. Double bogey. He then headed to the 18th tee and blocked his tee shot into the trees, following it with an overzealous punch which found the water again. Another double. With just three poor swings/decisions Barber cost himself six shots. Instead of contending, he made the cut on the number and finished the tournament in t16th place at 1 under.
In contrast, winner Si Woo Kim made three poor swings on Nos. 8-10 in his final round and played those holes 1 under and kept his momentum. Kim’s three poor swings resulted in a 1-under stretch, while Barber’s resulted in a 6-over run. Reverse those and Blayne Barber is your winner at 8-under, while Kim finishes at 4-under. At Sawgrass these micro-moments matter perhaps more than any other course on Tour because there is simply no room for throw away shots.
Short game and putting is for closers…
Parlaying off the Barber/Kim comparison, it’s virtually impossible to hit the ball poorly and contend, much less win, on the PGA Tour. Almost every week, the difference between winning and racking up top 10’s comes down to how a player performs inside of 125 yards. Winners typically take advantage of their opportunities and avoid bogeys or worse, which for the most part is dependent on wedge and putting performance on Sunday.
If you don’t believe this to be true take a spin through the world rankings and identify the players you don’t think win enough. Then look at how those players perform within 125 yards and you will find a common them. I will hang up and listen.
The only way to defend par
I know I beat this drum regularly, but firm and fast greens are the only fail safe way to test players at this level. When greens are soft players can ignorantly fire away at pins from any angle, disregarding the strategy and nuance that makes golf great and simply making it a contest of how far and close a player can hit it. This week’s new greens, coupled with Jacksonville’s recent drought conditions, created a spectacular test of golf that exposed poor shots and over-aggressive plays from poor angles. The players who found themselves in contention were the players who played well tee-to-green, but more importantly, took the smartest risks and had enough skill and nuance to their game to recover and avoid disaster when faced with tough situations.
The greatness of TPC Sawgrass lies in the fact that there are no throwaway shots. Any lapse in concentration will likely cost a player at least one shot. The course also possesses great variety in its design, forcing players to shape shots both ways, hit every club in the bag and know when to attack flags and when to play safe. Successfully playing aggressive shots typically rewards players with a shorter approach shot and a better angle but every yard that a player strays from the aggressive line results in a longer approach and worse angle. Shot into the greens require the utmost precision and misses test a player’s short game more than almost any other venue.
SB Nation’s Brendan Porath produced a gem on this subject, but The Players is the best tournament to attend as a spectator. It has the best field of any event, its easy to see almost every shot on every hole and it has a fun and unpretentious vibe. If you like watching pro golf I would highly recommend heading to Sawgrass and posting up on 17. The hype is real.
A fun way to watch a tournament
If you have never done this, I would recommend it: Pick a group that doesn’t have a ton of mainstream appeal and watch them play an entire round of golf. While watching a tough shot or an exciting hole can be really fun, I think the best experience is to watch an entire round and being able to see how these players are able – or unable – to keep their rounds together and hit different shots. This is the biggest opportunity live golf affords you – bypassing the big network producers who choose what you see. Nothing gives you a better chance to watch and think about how PGA Tour pros play the game and make decisions. I promise you will walk away smarter.