Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Players Championship Preview

"When I was insolent, I was placed
in a burlap bag and beaten with
reeds . . . pretty standard really."
Every time I hear someone call the Players Championship the 5th major, I think of Al Haig and the time he announced, "I am in control here" after President Reagan was shot and Vice President Bush was en route to Washington (presumably having just vomited on a high ranking member of the Japanese government). Haig was clearly suggesting that he, as Secretary of State, was third in line for the presidency.* I probably link the two claims because they are as outrageous as the one Dr. Evil's father made about being the man who "invented the question mark."

I've been railing against the over hyped importance of the Players for years, pretty much to myself and to strangers at bars who would inevitably look at their watch, ask for their check and leave. ("Where you going buddy? I haven't even gotten to the World Golf Rankings yet.") My traditional argument is that if Tiger has only won your tournament once, then your course stinks. Regardless of how you feel about Tiger now, you can't deny that, before he lost his fastball, he was the best or second best big game player ever. He won every major and WGC event at least three times and the Tour Championship twice but he is so polarizing now that you can't use him to make a point.** So let's attack it from a different angle and figure out what it takes to be a major and see if the Players qualifies.

The Field

If you're going to call yourself the 5th major, then clearly you need the top 30-40 players in golf which the Players has but all of the WGC events have them too so it can't be the distinguishing characteristic. In fact, the field at the Players is so big, you could argue that it is diluted which allows for guys like Craig Perks and Stephen Ames to come out of nowhere and take the title every few years. To be fair, the PGA Championship, the British Open and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. Open all have the same problem. If Todd Hamilton doesn't win a British game show to get into the 2004 Open, the top three finishers would have been (1) Ernie Els, (2) Phil Mickelson and (3) Lee Westwood. (This is one of the characteristics that separates the Masters from the rest). So in the end the Players has the major caliber field that it claims but that doesn't make it a major caliber tournament.

The Course

"Very good Ben. You may
now go have cake and pie."
Here are some early reviews of the TPC at Sawgrass from players before Deane Beman threatened to tell their sponsors that they were Communists: "It's Star Wars golf designed by Darth Vader" - Ben Crenshaw; "I've never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car" - Jack Nicklaus; and my favorite "90 percent horse manure and 10 percent luck" - J.C. Snead. Pete Dye subsequently tweaked the course after which Ben Crenshaw (who has never been prone to hyperbole) said, "now it's a darn good golf course."

Maybe it is but not compared to the courses on which majors are traditionally played and, for that matter, not compared to some of the better tour courses like Muirfield, Riviera and Firestone. It's a fun course to watch professionals play once a year but it seems to penalize poor shots to a far greater degree than it rewards good shots. You could say the U.S. Open does the same thing but it doesn't do it artificially like the Players does. At the U.S. Open, you can at least see the fairways from the tee and if you hit them, you can play a reasonable shot to the green. The announcers at the Players are always saying things like "this could be a really good shot if it just catches the slope . . . awwww . . . too bad, it's in the water." You can have one hole like that on a course but not 18 of them.    

The Buzz

You can feel the difference between a major and a regular tour event as soon as you walk onto the property. When you arrive at a major, it feels like you walked into a medieval jousting tournament.*** Everything is just bigger from the size of the crowd to the corporate tents to the number of T.V. towers. When you walk onto the grounds of a regular tour event, it kind of feels like you're at a really rich kid's birthday party where they tried to recreate an amusement park in a giant backyard. The Players feels more like the kid's birthday party because none of the buzz surrounding it is organic, it's all media generated.  If you're telling me that the Players is the 5th major, then I should be so fired-up that I'm setting my DVR on Monday to record it and loosely planning my weekend around watching it like I do for the real majors. I should be getting emails for Players pools and they should be having Calcuttas for it at the local clubs yet there is none of this. There is just Dan Hicks and everyone on The Golf Channel telling me over and over what a huge tournament it is. It kind of reminds of going to see Avatar.

The Past Champions 

Where you really lose me on the 5th major thing is the list of recent winners. If you're a tournament bucking for that promotion, you better produce a winner two out of every three years who people can look at and say, "yeah, I can buy that guy as the best player in the world this week." Take a look at the last ten winners of the Players and tell me how many you could say that about:

Craziest part about this shot?
Henrik's ball was in the fairway
when he took his pants off.
K.J. Choi                    
Tim Clark                  
Henrik Stenson          
Sergio Garcia              
Phil Mickelson            
Stephen Ames          
Fred Funk                  
Adam Scott                
Davis Love, III          
Craig Perks      

Mickelson is a given and I would even stretch it to Garcia, Scott and Love, III but you're not selling me on the rest of that riffraff. I mean Fred Funk was freakin' forty-eight when he won it. Six of the last ten winners fall somewhere between "he's a solid player" (Choi) and "who in the hell is that guy?" (Perks). That's a worse track record than the British Open which gets to be a major forever the same way the 75 year old senior partner is pitcher for life on the law firm softball team.

So that's my case against the Players Championship being the 5th major. Feel free to use it the next time the topic comes up at a cocktail party. (You're welcome). I will admit it is a highly entertaining tournament to watch and I'm looking forward to it (that reminds me . . . I need to set my DVR) but the 5th major?  Stop it.

Now let's get onto the business of spinning around twenty times drunk and blindfolded and then throwing a dart to picking the winner.

The Players Top Ten

We're going ten deep this week because my league allows for two picks. I hope that by now I've established that handicapping this thing is a total crapshoot based on the nature of the course and the fact that Davis Love, III is the only player to win it more than once in the last twenty years. (I asked the pro at my club who he would pick and he said "Kevin Stadler." Kevin Stadler?!?).  I still believe that familiarity with the course and past success has to count for something so we'll throw a little of that in the mixing bowl, combine it with some consideration for guys currently playing well and then add a couple of semi-random picks for good measure. With that in mind, here goes nothing:
"You're right Henrik.
Nothing in the rules
about wearing pants."

1. Luke Donald
2. Sergio Garcia
3. Jason Dufner
4. Ernie Els
5. Nick Watney
6. Justin Rose
7. Henrik Stenson
8. Spencer Levin
9. Jason Day
10. Ben Crane  

Let's face it. No one is suited to win something called the 5th major more than Luke Donald . . . except for maybe Sergio.

The Updated Majors Reserved List

I scratched Jim Furyk from the starting line-up last week and added him to this list and bumped Luke Donald off in the process. I wouldn't use Tiger or Rory at the Players even if they were still available to me. Rory has already made it known that he doesn't like the course (and we know how well he handles adversity like rain at the British Open). Meanwhile, I can't imagine a worse place for Tiger to take his unpredictable swing. He's currently 9/4 to finish in the top 10 and I'd love to take the opposite side of that action. Here are the eight players I currently have saved for the majors (in no particular order except for the two clowns who screwed me at the Masters).

Hey look, I found a word that rhymes with "Furyk".
Tiger Woods - Masters
Rory McIlroy - Masters  
Matt Kuchar
Lee Westwood
Keegan Bradley
Hunter Mahan
Jim Furyk
Phil Mickelson

Last Week's Report Card: C-

1. Jim Furyk - T26
2. Kevin Na - MC
3. Webb Simpson - 4th
4. Zach Johnson - T69
5. Bo Van Pelt - MC

I could probably go as low as a D+ on this but I at least picked a guy who finished in the top 5. The last minute switch from Furyk to Simpson was a good one for me but it could have been a whole lot better if Webb could have gone just a shot lower than 73 on his home freakin' course. I guess I should be thankful that I was saved from watching it by the 17 inning Oriole game . . . but I'm not.

Endnotes

* Haig would later explain that that is not what he was trying to say despite the fact that everyone who watched that press conference live heard it that way (and believe me, on March 30, 1981, the last time a president was shot, everyone was watching that press conference live).

** Lest we forget Tiger's resume: Masters (4), PGA Championships (4), U.S. Opens (3), British Opens (3), plus fifteen other Top 5's in majors. WGC wins: Bridgestone Invitational (7), Cadillac Championship (6), Accenture Match Play (3). That's 30 wins in the 91 biggest tournaments from 1997-2009. To put that into perspective, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh have each won 4 of those events in their career.  

*** Before I worked in the golf store, I was the second string squire for a Bavarian knight. The pay was lousy but the horny handmaidens . . . whoa nelly!