PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In some ways, a championship golf course is similar to a back judge at an NFL game.
There’s a role to play in the proceedings, sure, and an important one at that. But neither should ever become the focal point of an event or dictate the outcome.
And much like a referee, a course often only gets the brunt of attention when things go awry. Last week at the Wells Fargo Championship, for instance, players battled a brute of a layout that kept the winning score in single digits under par. But we didn’t hear a peep.
This week at The Players Championship was, uh, the opposite of that.
Just as amateurs fight the dreaded two-way miss, tournament officials never could quite get it right this week with the Stadium Course setup. Players feasted on surprisingly soft greens for the first 36 holes, only to encounter glassy surfaces where simply balancing the putter blade behind the ball became a challenge.
Player feedback on the greens Saturday ranged from “borderline unfair” to “dead and balding” to “putting on dance floors.” After two days of getting crushed for offering up soft conditions, tournament officials simply sprinted too far in the opposite direction.
“We always play golf on the edge. That’s what tournament setup is,” Justin Rose said Saturday. “Championship golf is always getting it on the knife edge because you want it firm and fast. Players talk about, ‘Oh, we want it firm and fast,’ but then when we get it just a little too firm and fast, we hate it. So there’s a very fine line there, and it’s difficult sometimes.”
It was a shift that, by multiple player accounts, only occurred because the biggest story of the first two days was how easy the course was playing as eventual champion Jason Day broke the 36-hole scoring record.
While the Tour took successful steps to rein the greens back in for the final round, they also insisted that Saturday’s side show was simply the result of a meteorological perfect storm, not a reaction to low scores.
“We didn’t deviate from our program,” said Mark Russell, the Tour’s vice president of rules and competition. “We just got in a situation where, no humidity and wind, and not a cloud in the sky.”
Either way, the ramifications of Saturday’s carnage were clearly felt the following day as Tour officials made not one, but two revisions to final-round pin placements in order to err on the side of caution.
“I’m sure they scared themselves with what happened to the course yesterday,” Graeme McDowell said. “I think with the humidity levels and how dry they got, I think they just scared themselves a little bit that that was possible.”
With course conditions shifting quickly from TPC Deere Run to Shinnecock Hills, players didn’t know what to expect entering the final round. Justin Rose improved his score by 12 shots, going from 78 to 66, but he also admitted to stepping up to a lengthy birdie try on the opening hole with a fear of where his ball might end up.
“I had no clue,” Rose said. “I’m like, ‘OK, well they look a little slower, but I have no idea.’ … I could have putted it off the green. I just had no concept.”
Variations in speed were expected all week long – after all, an inability to maintain consistency with this particular grass strand is a big reason why the greens will be dug up come Tuesday and replaced with a more responsive mini-verde variation.
But the larger issue for players, and the one that led to much of the belly-aching, was one that the Tour likely could have neutralized ahead of time.
“I think the shock factor was worse than anything else yesterday,” McDowell said. “It was like, ‘Whoa, what the hell just happened?’ It wasn’t unplayable, it was just shocking to see the change.”
“I think the thing we were all saying yesterday was there was no warning. There was no warning that it was going to get like that,” added Rory McIlroy. “If there was a notice up in the locker room saying, ‘The greens are stimping at 14 right now,’ then you sort of have a decent idea.”
Years from now, the lone memory of this year’s Players will likely be the dominance with which Day raised the Australian flag high above TPC Sawgrass.
But if the folks in Ponte Vedra are paying attention – as they assuredly are – they’ll learn from the mistakes incurred this week, where course setup decisions very nearly marred the circuit’s flagship event.
The fluctuations in setup were far from ideal, but as McDowell points out, things could have been much worse as the dying greens hosted their final hours of competitive play.
“What would have been interesting would have been if they got it nearly right yesterday, what would have happened today?” he wondered. “If they hadn’t learned from what happened yesterday, today could’ve been scary.”