'Fifth Major' forced to play waiting game
Tradition remains a vital missing link for the Players Championship, says Dermot Gilleece
A grand ambition conceived in 1982, with the launch of TPC Sawgrass, remains unfulfilled 30 years on. Despite endless blathering from TV pundits and astute manoeuvring by the PGA Tour, the Players Championship, which starts on Thursday, is still without Major status.
The absence of leading lights such as reigning Open champion Darren Clarke, last year's US Masters winner Charl Schwartzel and this year's champion Bubba Watson, lends telling emphasis to the belief that Majors don't just happen, they evolve. So it is that instead of battling for a coveted trophy, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood will be focusing next weekend on their elevated positions in the world rankings.
Meanwhile, Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington maintain their perennial challenge though it represents a return for McIlroy, who missed the cut in 2009 and 2010 and opted out last year.
Keenly aware of the importance of a quality venue to a Major championship, Deane Beman, as PGA Tour commissioner, was convinced that architect Pete Dye's dramatic creation in a North Florida swamp would fit the bill. And as if anticipating the later observation from Sandy Lyle, he explained: "All we are trying to do is to put on a quality event with a good field that the public and press might some day accept as a Major championship. Unlike the British Open, we don't have 100 years to wait to gain this prestige."
Five years later, after becoming the first European to win the then Tournament Players Championship, Lyle was asked by an American what the difference was between it and the Open. "About 150 years," came the laconic reply, as if to highlight the folly of Beman's ambitions. Another year on, in 1988, the TPC became the Players Championship and despite determined politicking, including a move from March to May in 2007, it remains no nearer to becoming a legitimate fifth Major.
Yet it is a splendid event, not least for the enduring challenge of Dye's handiwork which is based on the rather anarchic view that if golf is not a fair game, why build a fair course? Now in his 80s, he admitted recently: "I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined it would hold up the way it has, especially 17. I've been watching that hole for 30 years and it never ceases to amaze me how much trouble the best players in the world continue to have with the thing," he added of the island par-three. "They're standing there, 140 to 145 yards out and they can't hit it. I mean the green is almost 6,000 square feet.
"If it wasn't for the circumstances, they could hit it 100 times at midnight. But the swing changes when they get there."
Then he laughed: "It's the darndest thing."
Indeed it is. But it happens to be the perfect manifestation of Dye's conviction that the only way to throw a scare into a modern tournament professional is with wind and water. And this menacing little monster delivers both.
Much was made of the mind games between the Manchester United and City managers prior to last Monday's showdown, but Dye achieved the same objective without uttering a word. Firstly, he did it through the 100-yard walk the players, like modern-day gladiators, take from the 16th green to the 17th tee, where spectators are banked up on the left and water dominates the right.
Jim Furyk gave a typical, competitor's view of this forbidding walk when remarking: "I'm seeing the crowd and thinking, 'Look at all the people that came to watch the car wreck'. You just feel the buzz and the people waiting to see you hit it in the water."
The manner in which the challenge fits Dye's dual objectives was captured by Henrik Stenson, who became only the third European winner in 2009. "When waiting to putt on 16, I kinda look over," said the Swede. "It's normally the wind that's the tricky part -- if it's a little bit helping or a little bit into."
Perhaps the most telling observation of all, however, comes from Pádraig Harrington, who tied second in the Players behind Davis Love in 2003 and was runner-up to Adam Scott the following year. That was when he carded a closing 66 which contained a back nine of 30 and a stunning run of six threes for the last six holes from the 13th.
Of all the brilliant shots which Harrington hit over those sizzling six of par, birdie, birdie, eagle, par, birdie, it is revealing that the one which comes quickest to his mind is his tee-shot to the 17th. "I remember hitting a really nice tee-shot there but the ball flew about six yards longer than I wanted it," he recalled. "And I nearly made the putt, even though the ball stayed on the top tier."
Further jogging of the memory cells revived images for him of the 447-yard 18th, where a hard hook off the tee with a five-wood sent the ball 275 yards. He then reached the green, 172 yards further on, with no more than a seven-iron. "That was a great example of being in the zone, pumped up," he said.
And what of his eagle on the 507-yard 16th? "Having birdied the 14th and 15th, which are two of the tougher holes, I'm feeling good going to the 16th tee. All week I'd played 16 with a three-wood off the tee but because I was getting into contention, I hit driver for the only day that week. It left me with a five-iron of about 216, which I hit to a few feet from the hole."
Meanwhile, opinions vary as to the making of a Major. Some are of the view that the Masters gained this status back in 1942 when Byron Nelson beat Ben Hogan in an 18-hole play-off, a view confirmed in 1947 when Leonard Crawley, the highly regarded golf correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, acknowledged only two American Majors -- the US Open and the Masters. This meant the US PGA Championship, then a matchplay event until it changed to strokeplay in 1958, didn't qualify in his view.
However, the doyen of American golf writers, Herbert Warren Wind, claimed that the Masters didn't become a Major until 1954, when Hogan lost another play-off, this time to Sam Snead.
In terms of scheduling, the move to May has meant that the Masters, Players, US Open, Open Championship and the PGA are
conveniently staged in successive months from April to August. So it seems to me that the problem confronting the Players has to do with numbers. Four seems to be the most acceptable number based on Bobby Jones' so-called Grand Slam of 1930.
Yet Jones himself dismissed the notion of a modern Grand Slam of the four professional Majors, especially when spread over a career. Writing in 1967, he said: "I must confess that I get pretty tired of hearing about the only four men [Gene Sarazen, Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player] who have won all four of the Major championships [they have since been joined by Tiger Woods]. Obviously, no professional can ever win the four championships comprising my Grand Slam; but neither can any amateur ever win the phony Grand Slam created by the pros and the television people. I think if you can win both the British and US Opens in one year, this should be enough."
Since those remarks by Jones, the only additional players to have done his big double have been Lee Trevino (1971), Tom Watson (1982) and Woods (2000).
As criteria for a Major, the Players clearly qualifies on quality of field and quality of venue: tradition remains the missing ingredient which only time can provide. Unless, of course, an Irish winner were to prompt a rethink in these parts.
Sunday Indo Sport