Hawks Nest: The Players needs a dose of drama


The list of things that scare me is rather short: driving over a bridge on a windy day, the unruly presence of nose hair as my life approaches the 13th tee – and stroke play. Back when I hit a 6-iron 155 yards and missed one 4-footer a month, counting every swing in a tournament didn’t bother me. I even won a couple of rattle-bottom championships at the Little Brown Dog, mainly because my ball was easier to find than those of other competent players.

For some perverse reason, our golf chairman added an 18-hole stroke-play event to the spring calendar, and this past weekend we cranked out more doubles and triples than a Wendy’s franchise – our fearless medalist piled up six birdies, shot 2 over par and still won by five.

The key to coping with those inexcusable 7s? Relax, someone else will make an 8 in a matter of minutes. It’s not every day that I shoot 84 without losing a ball, or that such a bloated score earns me a tie for fourth overall. Hey, it’s early. When it comes to knowing where it’s going, my GPS doesn’t show up until June 1 at the earliest.

“That’s 84 gross, right?” my assistant pro asked.

“You’re not kidding,” I told him.

IT IS WHAT it is. Before those five words became America’s answer to everything, the default explanation promoted to contemporary cliché, the phrase had relevance as a description of The Players Championship. And what is The Players? A very good golf tournament marketed ceaselessly by an organization that boasts a majority of the world’s best golfers – but holds no jurisdiction over the game’s four major championships.

This will be the seventh Players held in May since it was moved from late March in 2007. Is it bigger and better now? I would say not. The event’s competitive disposition and scoring trends haven’t changed much, if at all. Other than in 2005 and ’08, when high winds made TPC Sawgrass much tougher, the winning total has landed between 272 and 276 every year since 2004.

Over that stretch, only Phil Mickelson had won a major title before claiming a Players. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the list of guys who hoisted Tim Finchem’s crystal was full of top-tier players, which isn’t to demean the guys who have won it since. Simply put, the golf course was designed to punish bad shots far more than reward good ones, and in recent years, the emphasis on playing safe, position-oriented golf has almost become mandatory.

That has led to some mundane finishes. Or someone losing the tournament instead of a player catching fire down the stretch to win it. The Players is about treading gently around the landmines, as Matt Kuchar did last year, because nobody’s going to chase down a leader with birdies on the 17th and 18th.

Drama can come in many forms, however, and there have been some thrilling Players finishes: Fred Couples over Colin Montgomerie and Tommy Tolles in 1996; Hal Sutton over Tiger Woods in 2000; Craig Perks in 2002. I guess you could throw in Sergio Garcia over Paul Goydos in 2008, but like many editions of this tournament, that one was decided on a Goydos mistake.

We’re due for a slam-bang conclusion this week. Sooner or later, the law of averages has to prevail, doesn’t it?

SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS on the old fifth major – pro golf’s version of what Stu Sutcliffe was in the Beatles:

• The par-5 16th at Sawgrass is a great hole – a terrific risk-reward opportunity and not marred by an over-cluttered design, as are so many holes on the course. Sort of like a poor man’s 13th at Augusta, at least in terms of scoring swings; although, the two holes couldn’t look more different. (Click here for Frank Nobilo's tee-to-green look at TPC Sawgrass)

• I’ve never understood why they haven’t added some tee boxes at the par-3 17th. There is plenty of room on both sides of the current teeing ground to change the angle of the shot (often a 9-iron or wedge) and make things more interesting. I totally agree with Woods’ assessment that it’s silly to have an island green on the second-to-last hole on the course but hey, it’s not like they’re going to change that anytime over the next couple of centuries.

• Speaking of Woods, why hasn’t Eldrick Almighty played well at Sawgrass in recent years? There are a lot of restrictive driving holes, which not only compromises his power, but his ability to get comfortable visualizing certain tee shots. Back when he lost to Sutton, then picked up his only Players victory a year later, there wasn’t a golf course Woods couldn’t play.

He had a 43-inch driver with a steel shaft, which allowed him to shape the ball more efficiently and position himself for scoring chances. At this point, I’m not totally convinced he cares whether he wins another Players.

ON AUG. 1, 1999, I spent four hours on the back of the Sawgrass practice range with Vijay Singh, my tape recorder running until I ran out of cassettes. As one might expect at that time of the year in northern Florida, it was a brutally hot day, but I don’t recall Singh not hitting balls for any extended length of time during the interview.

I’d ask a question and Singh would answer it, sometimes while hitting a shot in mid-sentence. The man came across as fiercely proud, speaking of his struggles as a young pro in the early 1980s with a cool defiance. Make no mistake: the guy could be very engaging, his playful sense of humor punctuated by a high-pitched laugh. He also made it clear that you didn’t want to cross him, either.

We spoke at length about the cheating incident that led to an indefinite suspension on the Asian Tour in 1985. Singh was candid, perhaps a little defensive, but things went fine until we reached the Sawgrass parking lot that afternoon and I asked for permission to speak to his wife.

He told me that wasn’t going to happen. I told him I couldn’t produce a responsible piece of journalism without talking to the one person who had gone through all the tough times with him, but it didn’t matter. Singh wasn’t giving in, and I wasn’t going to push the issue to the point where things got confrontational.

That said, the story was dead. When Singh won the Masters the following spring, I used stuff from the Sawgrass interview for my article in Golf World magazine, driving home the point that Singh’s career immediately began to take flight after the suspension. He’d spent the year beating balls and getting motivated. When he moved on to the European Tour in the mid-1980s, nothing was going to stop him from making it big.

The piece was highly complementary – I mean, the guy had just won the Masters – but when I ran into him at Hilton Head the following week and asked him if he’d seen the story, Singh responded, “I’m never talking to you again.” I was blown away by his reaction. And to this day, other than when I tried to reconcile the situation eight or nine years later, that has indeed been the case.

Fast forward to last week, when Tour commissioner Tim Finchem decided not to penalize Singh for his admitted use of deer-antler spray. Having previously written here that I thought a suspension was in order, I underestimated Finchem’s ability to think his way through a tough issue, and ultimately, find legal justification for letting Singh off the hook.

In this case, it came in the form of a recent conclusion by scientists that deer-antler spray provided little or no advantage to athletes – and that testing for the substance was hit or miss. This doesn’t change the fact that Singh used a banned substance when it was on the banned-substance list, but what’s done is done. I don’t agree with the commissioner’s action but respect and understand his position.

A number of Tour pros expressed mixed feelings on the ruling, which probably says more about the verdict than anything. During six hours of chat last Thursday and Friday, however, I received a grand total of one question on the Singh pardon. This in stark contrast to the dozens of replies regarding my belief that Woods won’t break Jack Nicklaus’ career-majors record.

Maybe even serious golf fans don’t really care about Singh anymore. Or maybe his legacy has been further tainted by this whole affair, and at this point, there’s nothing left for anyone to say.