PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Blame it on increased winds. Blame it on increasingly crispy greens. You could even blame it on incensed officials after two days of record scoring.
But the real culprit on Day 3 at The Players could best be described as assisted agronomic suicide.
On Tuesday after the crowds have dispersed and the champion has deposited his winner’s check, officials will begin a renovation of TPC Sawgrass. With the end nigh for the Stadium Course’s putting surfaces there’s no reason to nurse them along, and the result – at least in practical terms for the remaining Players field – is a golf course that was transformed overnight from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.
The browner the better, with no tomorrow for the doomed blades that seemed to fade from a lush green on Thursday and Friday to varying shades of awful for Day 3.
Statistically the golf course turnaround was jarring.
For two days the Stadium Course played to a 71.06 scoring average led by Day’s record 36-hole total of 15 under par. On Saturday, under a sweltering sun and gusting winds, that average ballooned to 75.59.
Will Wilcox made a triple-bogey-7 at No. 6, Sergio Garcia made a quadruple-bogey-8 at No. 5 – that included a five-putt – and Martin Kaymer completed the hand with a quintuple-bogey-9 at the 14th hole.
But none of the mathematical madness could compare to Day’s card on Black Saturday.
After going 38 holes without a bogey he played his next six with a bogey and two double bogeys. The world No. 1 three-putted the third from 47 feet - he’d recorded only 13 three-putts this season - and four-putted the sixth.
It was a sign of how steep the uphill climb had become that despite a third-round 73, Day’s lead remained the same, four strokes.
“That was the hardest round of golf I’ve ever played,” said Day, who leads Hideki Matsuyama, Ken Duke and Alex Cejka at 14 under.
Others described TPC Crispy in much less flattering terms.
“Nightmare,” Vijay Singh sighed with a shake of his head after a 73.
“Crazy tough,” figured Matsuyama after a stunning 67.
“Dead. Balding,” figured Kevin Chappell after a 2-under 70 that was marred by a closing double-bogey-6 at the 18th hole.
“Borderline unfair,” was Rory McIlroy’s take after his rally was undercut by a second-nine 40 that left him nine shots off the pace.
You can’t blame Pete Dye for this. The old master had nothing to do with Saturday’s carnage. This wasn’t a design flaw as much as it was by design.
Although Tour officials dismissed the notion they dialed TPC Sawgrass back after two days of record scoring, the players and the leaderboard told a different story.
“We have done the same thing all week. We have been double cutting these greens and double rolling them and trying to get them firmed up,” said Mark Russell, the Tour’s vice president of rules and competition. “What happened today was just kind of a perfect storm with the weather. We weren't expecting a 20 mph wind all day, and the humidity 30 percent, not a cloud in the sky. And they just, you know, sped up on us.”
But then that doesn’t explain a three-putt percentage of historic proportions?
The Tour average for three-putts in a round is 2.93 percent, and on Thursday and Friday the field hovered around the norm with a 2.08 and 2.67 percent average, respectively. On Saturday that number skyrocketed to 11 percent.
“A different golf course showed up today,” Adam Scott said following a 75 that included 29 putts.
The Tour’s assessment that Saturday’s conditions remained consistent doesn’t add up when one considers there were 149 three-putts in Round 3 and more rounds in the 80s (seven) than there were in the 60s (three).
“It's funny how green these greens were on Thursday when we played and how brown they look now,” Billy Horschel said. “I'm guessing they stopped watering them a little bit.”
Whatever the reason behind the dramatic change, there seems little chance players will be given much of a break for the final turn. Again, this goes to the general poor condition of the Stadium Course’s greens and the impending makeover.
More user-friendly hole locations and less wind could help on Sunday, but that won’t bring the grass back. That agronomic ship sailed when officials decided to put some teeth back in TPC Sawgrass.
“We've been asking for the greens to get quicker, and the greens to get firmer, and they got to that point,” Horschel said. “I don't expect anything different tomorrow. I think maybe a little bit firmer and just as fast.”
With that reality looming, Graeme McDowell was asked after his round if he planned to go practice his putting. He paused, glanced down at the cart path he was standing on and mimicked a putting stroke. “Yeah, right here,” he smiled.