Sawgrass Favors No Certain Player

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If you normally figure your golf tournament favorites by how far they can stripe the ball, better go back to the drawing board when mapping out The Players Championship.
 
True, a lot of the bolo punchers have won here ' Davis Love III in 2003, Tiger Woods in 2001, David Duval in 1999, Fred Couples in 1996, Greg Norman in 1994.
 
Fred Funk
Fred Funk is one of a variety of different winners at Sawgrass.
But then there is Craig Perks in 2002, Hal Sutton in 2000, Steve Elkington in 1997 and 91 ' all guys who are just average in length. And where do you put Fred Funk of last year, Craig Perks in 2002, Justin Leonard in 1998 or Tom Kite in 88? These guys are pea-shooters compared to the musclemen of the TOUR. But each won the biggie, the one most people call the fifth major.
 
Its a terribly confusing animal, the TPC at Sawgrass. Neither long hitter nor short hitter has the lock on the Players titles. Neither straight striker or spray hitter, neither fish or fowl.
 
It just shows you, it's got a lot of variety and you can play the golf course lots of different ways, says Ernie Els. Basically, it gets the best player that's on form (that) is going to win the tournament - if you're a longer hitter, shorter hitter.
 
Even the winning scores have been on a topsy-turvy roller coaster ride. Norman went ridiculously low in 1994 when he shot a 24-under 264. But Duval was 21 shots higher when he won with a 3-under 285. Funk last year was 15 shots off the record when he was the best at 279, 9 under.
 
The difference, of course, is the weather conditions. Sawgrass is usually fast and dry, which is the recipe for higher scores. But in 94, the course was so lush that balls which normally would have run off into the rough stayed in the fairway. The greens were soft enough to have a go at them from anywhere on the course. The breezes caressed the cheeks instead of blowing in an angry tantrum. And rains dampened the oft-fiery fairways, leaving them no more scary than your course at home.
 
When it gets a little firmer, the second shots become probably the toughest on TOUR, said Els, because the greens are very small, very undulating, and there's only certain areas where you can go with your second shots. So when it's firm, that's one of our toughest tests.
 
The democratic nature of the course is exemplified perfectly by Woods, who won once and finished second (2000-01). But look what was happened to him the past four years (2002-2005) ' he finished T14 in 2002, T11 in 03, T16 in 04, and last year he dropped to T53.
 
Why the difficulty in picking a champion? Why does everyone ' all the better players ' stand out at some time or another at this championship?
 
I think just the nature of its design, with the doglegs, said Tiger, how (architect) Pete (Dye) designed it with the cutoff bunkers and the mounding that it just brings all of us together.
 
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.
 
Phil Mickelson detected another obstacle recently when the course was changed yet again.
 
I think that when the rough was added and made so thick around the greens, it gave an advantage to the player that kept it a little bit shorter and a little bit straighter, he said. But because the greens are small and tough to hit, there's an advantage to a guy who can hit it a little bit longer. Whoever is playing well is the guy that has the advantage.

In addition, It's a second-shot golf course, says Els. 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.
 
And then obviously when it's soft, it's a big change and it's very easy. We always have rough there, so accuracy is a premium. You know, your short game, you'd better have your short game around there because the greens are small. So overall, it's a great test.
 
Which Sawgrass will show up this year? No one knows for certain at the moment. Maybe that is why it is such a great examination
 
It's a great test, Els said. I think to have different winners like that shows you how good the golf course is.
 
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