Fair Play at Players Championship

By Mercer BaggsMarch 20, 2006, 5:00 pm
Fred Funk didnt hesitate in giving his answer. Nor did he try to dance around the question.
His response was simple and direct ' and honest: No, he said.
The question posed to Funk as he stood on the Bay Hill practice range last Tuesday was: Do you think that you can win the Masters? And in one word, just two little letters, brevity made a big statement.
Fred Funk
Fred Funk reacts emphatically to his Players victory a year ago.
Funk has never had much success at the Masters. Hes played the course under tournament conditions 10 times, never once cracking the top 15 and missing the cut six times, including each of the last three years.
And now that Augusta National is playing at a juiced-up 7,445 yards, Funk knows that he will be lucky to ever play all four rounds again, let alone actually contend for the title.
I think they should have a separate locker room for guys who make the cut, Funk joked, making reference to the fact that the Masters has a locker room reserved for champions only.
While Funk may never win the seasons first official major championship, he knows for a fact that he can win the games unofficial fifth major.
Funk is the defending champion of this weeks Players Championship. And, though there has never been a repeat winner in tournaments 32-year history, Funk believes in the possibility that he may be the first.
Theres a chance, definitely, he said. I love the course. And I know I can win out there.
As evidenced, Funks optimism is derived from his admiration for the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass. He lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and is quite familiar with the venue. In addition to the countless times that hes played the course in practice sessions, hes played the tournament on 15 occasions. Prior to last years victory, he had four top-15 finishes.
I think its very important off the tee to place the shot in the proper place at (Sawgrass), more so than it is at a place like Augusta, he said. At Augusta, you just bomb it off the tee.
Think about the gap between the longest and the shortest players, he continued. There used to be only about 30 yards (difference) between me and the longest guys on tour ' now its 70. Thats a designers nightmare: How do you design a course thats fair for both (long and short) players when theres a 70-yard gap in distance.
Pete Dye designed (the Stadium Course) long before all this stuff with the golf ball. And its stood the test of time. Its still a great set-up shot course.
Many players refer to the host site of The Players as a second shot course. Because of the twists and turns, the bottlenecks, and the strategic placement of hazards, players are forced to hit their tee shots into similar spots ' whether by driver, 3-wood, utility club or long iron.
It's a great test, Ernie Els said. It's a second shot golf course. Conditions also determine how you've got to play it. If it's soft, you can be very aggressive. You'll see a lot of good scoring because the ball will stick on the greens.

When it gets a little firmer, the second shots become almost probably the toughest on TOUR because the greens are very small, very undulating, and there's only certain areas where you can go with your second shots.
Craig Perks agreed with the second shot assessment, but added, Its a first-, second-, third- and fourth-shot course, really. You have to play every shot in order to be successful there.
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods is one of a variety of different winners on the Stadium Course since it first hosted The Players in 1982.
Perks would know. His lone TOUR victory came on the Stadium Course in his Players Championship debut in 2002.
I think its a definite placement golf course, he said. Driving is at a premium just because if you dont put it in the right place off the tee then you cant attack the pins. If you miss the greens, its very difficult to get up and down. I think it allows any type of player to win there.
Like big hitters Tiger Woods (2001) and Davis Love III (1992, 2003) and Fred Couples (1984, 1996). Like control players Funk and Steve Elkington (1991, 1997) and Nick Price (1993).
From Calvin Peete (1985) and Tom Kite (1989) and Justin Leonard (1998) to Jack Nicklaus (1978) and Greg Norman (1994) and David Duval (1999).
Since it first hosted The Players Championship in 1982, the Stadium Course has favored no particular type of player.
I wouldnt agree with that statement, said Jim Furyk, who calls the TPC at Sawgrass home. I keep hearing that, but Im not buying into it just yet.
The reason I say that is because you have to bring the ball into those greens from a high trajectory. You cant be a low-ball hitter and play consistently into those greens. Its not really length off the tee thats a factor; its the high trajectory (from hitting shorter irons) that you need into those greens.
I still think they (the longer hitters) have an advantage.
Furyk pointed out that Funks victory had a lot to do with last years weather conditions, in which, after constant delays and suspensions forced play to be carried over to Monday, winds gusting upwards of 35 mph toyed with most in the field.
No one was able to hit fairways and greens. So, for Freddie, hes that kind of guy. He controls the ball, and the accuracy of the golf ball, better than anybody. So when it got very windy, he was able to keep the ball in the fairway better than everyone else. He was able to hit the ball on the green better than everyone else. And thats why he won, Furyk explained.
Inclement weather has long been a factor at this prestigious event. Thats one of the reasons that the tournament will be held in May beginning next season.
But even when Mother Nature has dampened the course and made it play longer than its listed 7,093 yards, She hasnt guaranteed success for every heavy hitter.
Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Phil Mickelson, Els and Sergio Garcia are all plenty long off the tee. And they rank, respectively, 2-6 on the Official World Golf Ranking.
Yet none of them has ever won The Players. And in a combined 50 starts, they have accrued three top-5 finishes compared to 15 missed cuts.
Even Woods, who has won every major championship at least twice, and has won 10 other tournaments on multiple occasions, is still stuck on one Waterford Crystal trophy from this particular tournament.
And hes not alone. Only four players have won more than once on the Stadium Course.
Woods credits the diversity to the nature of the design.
How Pete (Dye) designed it with the cutoff bunkers and the mounding that it just brings all of us together, said Woods, who hasnt earned a top-10 at The Players since his 2001 triumph.
We're all hitting the balls to the same spots. A lot of times for the longer hitters, it's 3-wood or 2-iron or some kind of utility club off the tees where the shorter guys are hitting drivers, so we're all in the same spot. With that in mind, it becomes a second shot course and see who can hit their irons the best and put themselves in positions where they can make putts.
Last year, that person was Funk, whose 279 (9 under) winning total was about three strokes higher than the average winning score over the last 24 years on the Stadium Course.
Ultimately, Funk believes success at Sawgrass has as much to do with strategy as it does with skill.
Theres a lot of holes where you give the guy on the tee an option, and hes got to think about how he wants to shape his shot (off the tee) and how he wants to fit his shot in there (on the greens), Funk said.
Does he want to take a risk? Does he want to be rewarded if he takes that risk? Whats the price to pay if he does? Youve got a lot of stuff to think about when you play that golf course.
Its just a fair test of golf. Its fair for everybody.
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