PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – By many accounts, TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course is in the best condition it’s been in years, groomed to agronomic perfection by a particularly warm winter in north Florida and a few architectural nip/tucks.
Twelve months removed from one of the most comical – or cruel depending on one’s point of view – chapters in the tournament’s history, it doesn’t even seem like the same layout to many who played Round 3 at last year’s Players Championship.
James Hahn shutters when he recalls that Saturday at the 2016 Players when winds gusted to 20 mph and the course’s greens took on a brownish hue and the rigid consistency of a pool table.
“I’m going to say unfair,” Hahn said when asked about the greens on Day 3 at the ’16 Players. “They were the fastest and with certain pin locations, if you are expecting the greens to be 15 [on the Stimpmeter] you can’t put them in the same pin locations we’ve had for the last 20 years.”
Like many of his Tour frat brothers, Hahn wasn’t happy with the conditions. Unfair, unplayable, unbearable, pick your poison, everybody had something to say about the Stadium Course.
Sawgrass played to a 75.59 stroke average that fateful day which was the third highest single-round total last season and highest for a non-major.
Tour officials prepared the greens for Saturday’s round the same as they had all week by double cutting and double rolling them, but were caught off guard by the wind and unexpectedly low humidity.
The result was a round that quickly turned into a free-for-all.
Kevin Streelman three-putted his first hole from 18 feet on his way to an 80; as did Steve Wheatcroft to kickoff a round of 79, and Hahn thought his 27 footer for birdie at his first hole (No. 10) was a perfect chance to get off to a good start before he raced that attempt by 9 feet.
Hahn was paired with Ken Duke that black Saturday and Duke remembers Hahn and Jon Curran, who were on opposite sides of the hole, both about the same distance, essentially trade places with their first attempts at the group’s first hole.
“They both three-putted right out of the gate, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh boy,’” Duke said.
Hahn wanted to be angry with the PGA Tour staff for a poor setup that embarrassed the players, but he kept watching Duke roll in putt after putt on his way to a 7-under 65, which was by far the day’s best and more than 10 strokes better than the field average.
“It was the most impressive round I’ve seen in my life, he not only hit it close, he was making 18, 20 footers that had 2 or 3 feet of break and he was jarring them. His speed, if he didn’t make the putt his ball would roll by 5 or 6 feet at times,” Hahn said. “He knew it was going in the hole, but for me I was always worried about the second putt.”
Duke took just 24 putts on Day 3, made one bogey (at No. 11) and was 16-of-17 on putts from 10 feet and in. It was a clinic within a competitive catastrophe.
“I hit it in the right spot where you could make putts,” Duke said. “I got ahold of the speed of the greens early, and that was the difference.”
What Duke lacks in hyperbole he makes up for with his southern simplicity, but his take on that surreal Saturday really doesn’t do it justice.
No one was immune to greens that most say were faster than Augusta National’s, faster than even Oakmont during the U.S. Open.
“My caddie [James Edmondson] kept telling me, ‘Hit it softer,’” Ryan Palmer recalled, “ and I’m like, ‘I’m trying.’”
Eventual champion Jason Day needed 32 putts on Day 3 on his way to a 73 and a tie for third that week in total putts.
“It was miserable,” said Hudson Swafford, who recalled running his chip at his first hole 4 feet by the hole. “And then I watched Freddie Jacobson, who is a notoriously good putter, almost putt it off the green from 12 feet and I was like, wow. It was comical.”
Golf is hard, but this was something bordering on cruel and unusual.
For Hahn, the tipping point came at the sixth hole and a 3-footer for birdie that he estimated had about a half foot of break, which he missed on the low side and that rolled out 5 feet. To this day, the California-Berkeley graduate still doesn’t know how he could have made that putt.
“For perfect [Dave] Pelz speed, 17 inches past the hole, where would you putt that putt? What would the line be?” Hahn said. “I couldn’t do the math on it because I’ve never really thought about greens like that other than it just being illegal.”
The greens may not have been illegal, but most agree they were wrong. Wrong for everyone, that is, except Duke.