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Stars take back seat to uniquely challenging TPC Sawgrass at Players

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Rory McIlroy (zero Players titles) ranks TPC Sawgrass with Augusta National and St. Andrews. (Getty Images)  
Rory McIlroy (zero Players titles) ranks TPC Sawgrass with Augusta National and St. Andrews. (Getty Images)  

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- In an era of indistinguishable tracks, vanilla venues and real-estate developments masquerading as tournament sites, it isn't often that an inanimate object is as much a part of the story as the guys in spikes.

Pardon our prose about the pros, but at the tournament they often call the Players, the players are second banana to the course.

Conducted annually at a venue that is frequently the biggest plotline of the week, the Players Championship begins Thursday at infamous TPC Sawgrass, one of the most identifiable, difficult and copied golf courses in the game.

Of the many far-flung courses that world No. 1 Rory McIlroy plays on a regular basis, he listed Augusta National, the British Open when it's staged at St. Andrews and this week's trek around Hall of Fame designer Pete Dye's tropical torture track as the lone sites where the course is bigger than any horse.

"I think that's probably it," McIlroy said after considering the list, thoughtfully.

Hard to argue the point.

Beguiling and bewitching, Sawgrass has proven to be one of the toughest courses for elite players to solve, and has become the most democratic venue in the game. Bombers, plinkers and everybody in between has won over the past decade, and about the only certainty is that the guy who is hoisting the trophy at the end can claim, with nary a second thought, that he outplayed the other 143 guys in the field.

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There's no winning solely with a hot putter or by strafing it into submission with howitzer shots off the tee. Contenders must bring all 14 clubs and use them judiciously. The best man almost always wins.

"That's what it looks like, yeah, over the years," said Tiger Woods, who has one victory in 14 trips to Sawgrass as a pro. "You just can't fake it on this golf course. That's the biggest thing that we've learned over the years -- you have to just play well, period."

That's the brilliance of the design. The fairways are not one-piece airport runways, dead straight and open to B-52 bombers. They are disjointed, a jumble of odd angles and pieces. Players have to hit accurate tee shots into certain spots, so length becomes a secondary asset.

From there, whereas a track like Augusta has been described as a "second-shot venue" because of the emphasis on approaches, Sawgrass requires absolute attention to the very end. On many courses, once the ball is in the fairway, it's a green-light scenario. Not here.

"You have to hit two precise shots on nearly every hole," said Steve Elkington, a two-time winner at Sawgrass. "It's that kind of course. It stimulates you all the way around."

It aggravates, too.

Woods has one top-10 finish at Sawgrass since winning 11 years ago and has a higher career scoring average (71.41 strokes) at this venue than at any of the four majors, including the supposedly masochistic U.S. Open. Bad as that sounds, it's still the second-best scoring average among active PGA Tour players with more than 10 rounds at Sawgrass.

Translated: tough track. Rest assured, unlike some guys, Woods knows how to play the course, too. He won a U.S. Amateur title here and nearly won in 2000 before losing to Hal Sutton.

"On this particular golf course you have to hit the ball well," said Woods, who won the 2001 title. "There's no getting around it."

For years, players have tried to solve the breeze-swept former swamp, and have generally been swallowed up like gator bait. But both the database and former winners can help identify the toolset required to emerge Sunday with the biggest winner's check on the U.S. tour.

Elkington, who won by seven shots in 1997, described the keys as "curve and control" -- meaning moving the ball around and dropping it in the right spots.

"The guy who has the advantage is the guy who puts it in the fairway and puts the ball on the right part of the green," the Aussie said. "It's the best test of skill. This is the course to show that off, if you've got it. It's a lot of two-shot tests."

Interestingly, certain trends emerge when tracking past winners since the event moved to Sawgrass in 1982, and it underscores the attributes necessary to swim, not sink, at Dye's waterlogged venue.

 The leader in driving distance for the week has never won, while the driving accuracy leader has won five times since 1994.

 The player who led the field in putting has not won since 1997.

 Meanwhile, the player who topped the weekly chart in greens in regulation has claimed the title 10 times, including four of the past eight years.

Elkington laughs when he reads stories claiming that the Players is the toughest tournament in which to project the winner because so many players with varying attributes have won. He believes that top iron players have a huge leg up, which is why ball-strikers like himself, Calvin Peete and Hal Sutton won at Sawgrass in the past.

"To me, it's the easiest of all to handicap, because the golf course handicaps it for you," Elkington said.

It makes everybody feel handicapped in some fashion, actually. That's part of the allure.

"I think Pete Dye is the best modern-day architect by a wide margin, along with Tom Fazio," said ESPN analyst and former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, who played in the event 19 times. "There's genius in what he does. There's rhyme to the reason and reason to the rhyme."

The arrythmic result is the most sensationally syncopated course on tour.

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