Just Like Home

By Rex HoggardMay 7, 2009, 4:00 pm
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The PlayersPONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. ' On his way to TPC Sawgrass for this weeks Players, soulful swing coach Jamie Mulligan was talking with Tour staple John Cook about the Pete Dye design when his longtime student/mentor paused and offered a startling revelation.
He has never hit in the water at the 17th, Mulligan smiled. It is one of the only times hes ever said anything about his himself. Hes never said anything like, I won here or there or did this or that. It was really something.
Sixty-six trips around the Stadium without a single rinse cycle at the island round-ender is the stuff of Hollywood fantasy, and perhaps the unofficial start to the Long Beach love affair at Sawgrass. Its a lineage that runs through Paul Goydos everyman near miss last year against Sergio Garcia and into the most recent edition, John Mallinger and his opening-round 66 that left him a shot off the Day 1 lead.
Its not as though the threesome enjoys swings made for TPC Central, as if such an action exists. Cook the world beater, Goydos the grinder and Mallinger have vastly different means but all seem to arrive at the same ends when the Tour arrives on the First Coast.
It's very close. We've got a good group of guys out at Virginia Country Club we all hang with. Paul has been a great mentor to us. John Cook has been great to us, said Mallinger, who along with Tour newcomers John Merrick and Peter Tomasulo make up the core of Mulligans SoCal stable. We all have different games, but (Mulligan) knows how to teach our games. We don't go off anything else. We go off basically his eye.
Leave the West Coast bias to politics and the NCAA selection committee, The Players fits these Long Beachers eye like cool on-shore breezes and ocean-framed sunsets.
Part of the groups familiarity can be traced to their Southern California stomping grounds. Virginia CC is an inviting place located just on the other side of the 405 in north Long Beach that sports a Sawgrass feel, sans the railway ties and punishing penultimate hole.
This place reminds us of Virginia Country Club a little bit, Mulligan said. Small greens, middle of the fairway, middle of the green and youve got a birdie putt.
On Thursday, Mallinger holed about every birdie opportunity that came his way, rolling in seven attempts from no further than 12 feet on a course that he loved the first time he saw it.
The group is also a conduit for shared knowledge. Cooks 22 Players starts gave the group a base of information that has helped the next generation, particularly Mallinger and Merrick, prepare for a course that is akin to puzzle building.
Shared tidbits like take what you can from TPCs par 5s but dont get greedy. Even Mallinger, among the circuits longer types, showed an elevated level of restraint on Thursday, going for Nos. 2 and 16 in two shots but laying up at the ninth and 11th. All total, he played TPCs longest in 3 under, which was better than the field average.
The greens on nine and 16 are really, really small, said Merrick, who added to Long Beachs TPC trifecta with a 2-under 70. The biggest thing around here is missing in the right spots. You cant short side yourself at all.
The group has also taken to drafting better than the 2 car heading into Turn 4.
Goydos success last year at TPC inspired Merrick to his best finish in a major event last month at the Masters (T-6), which begat Mallingers inspired run on a hot and humid opening day south of Jacksonville.
Weve all come up through the same ranks, Merrick said. When one of us has a good event it encourages the rest of us.
For Mulligan ' whose teaching technique combines a rich potpourri of swing fundamentals, extensive preparation and an almost Zen-like outlook ' Mallingers stellar start was, well, in the stars.
Hes been getting better for two months, Mulligan said. Weve refined his swing and gotten things a little cleaner. All the spokes on the wheel are moving in the right direction right now.
And all the SoCal stars aligned through 18 holes in Ponte Vedra Beach, perhaps the closest thing to a Left Coast enclave one will find on the Florida peninsula, including sun, sand and a quiet beach house with a grill for quiet dinners.
We did Mexican last night. Probably grill some burgers tonight, Merrick said. Just relax.
Just like home.
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