New-look Stadium Course shows its teeth at The Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — By Sunday morning at The Players Championship, only J.B. Holmes had managed to play each of the first three rounds below par. Then Holmes shot an 84 in the final round, the highest score in tournament history by a player entering Sunday with the lead.

And that’s the kind of week it was at TPC Sawgrass.

Only one player, Si Woo Kim, seemed at home in the firm conditions and swirling winds of the famous Stadium Course. The 21-year-old South Korean played his two weekend rounds with just one bogey, an especially impressive feat when you consider that, in the other 150 cards turned in Saturday and Sunday, 90 contained a double bogey or worse.

“Sometimes there’s no bail-out area, there’s no safe place, so it can certainly make you feel uncomfortable,” said Adam Scott, who finished five shots back at 5 under. “I don’t know what the best way to describe the golf course is. It’s a hell of a test.”

And it’s a test that has never been passed by the same player twice in a row, as all 41 of the tournament’s defending champions have failed to repeat.

“That just goes to show you how hard it is to come back and play this golf course,” 2016 champion Jason Day said earlier this week, “because it does test every aspect of your game, not only the physical part but the mental part, as well, and if you don’t come into a golf course like this sharp in both areas, then it will really unfold out there.”

Day, who won wire-to-wire here last year, was 1 under and in contention when he teed off Sunday afternoon, yet any threat he posed to break the dubious streak was gone by the time he reached the 16th hole at 1 over – and that was before the Australian carded a quadruple-bogey-9 on the hole, as well as a double bogey at 17, to finish the tournament in a tie for 60th at 7 over.

Make that 42 years without TPC Sawgrass conceding a repeat champion.

It seems the design of legendary course architect Pete Dye has a knack for distributing success among the golfing world’s known and unknown, a trend that held this week as none of the world’s top-10 players finished within seven shots of the lead.

“Yeah, the guy who plays the best wins, for sure,” Pat Perez said. “And it doesn’t favor anybody, because Tim Clark has won and Tiger and Jason Day have won.”

Perez should know. The resurgent 41-year-old entered the final round 4 under, within striking distance of the leaders. Eight holes into Sunday’s round, Perez was 2 over and out of contention.

And there was plenty more company in the week’s high-scoring misery, most notably from the world’s very best. Consider this list of players: Rory McIlroy, Day, Jordan Spieth, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm. Those players have a couple things in common. For one, they’re all in the Official World Golf Ranking’s top 12. For another, none of them finished better than 30th.

How’s that for spreading the success around?

“You can’t really dictate how you play it,” McIlroy said. “(The course) sort of makes the decision for you.”

In some cases, those decisions made by the course resulted in absolute scorecard carnage. Anirban Lahiri posted a 10 at the par-4 18th on Friday. Later that day, Zac Blair made a 9 at the par-3 17th. Even Matt Kuchar, the world’s 18th-ranked player, got in the action with a quintuple-bogey 9 on Saturday at the par-4 14th.

Yet perhaps the most surprising performance of them all was turned in by one of the game’s best, Jordan Spieth. The world’s fifth-ranked golfer opened his 2017 Players Championship with a double bogey and never recovered, missing the cut after going four over through the first two rounds.

And still Spieth, preparing to head home for the weekend, left with only admiration for one of golf’s great challenges.

“It’s a fantastic golf course, I love this track, and I love how you got to work one ball flight off the tee and the opposite into the greens,” Spieth said. “It’s almost every hole out here and every hole’s memorable. And because of that, because you have to work the ball both directions so many times, it’s so hard to stay right on.”


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