They like to say around these parts that there is no single template for success on Pete Dye’s ode to the railroad tie. The design of TPC Sawgrass, home to the Players Championship, is supposed to foster a democracy of abilities, each aspect of golf treated here as equals.
In theory then, it’s just about anyone’s tournament at this point.
Be you Tiger Woods, who began making birdies and using up all the oxygen on the back nine late Thursday.
Or be you Brian Harman. The 5-foot-7 former Georgia player somehow slipped by the attendant and the sign that said: “You must be at least this tall to ride this tournament,” to shoot 66 and stand plenty tall enough – just one shot off the first-round lead.
That’s the kind of competitive diversity this place is meant to extract.
One certainty, a day when 33 of the 144-man field broke 70 was no time to play it safe.
By mid-day Tommy Fleetwood had posted a 7-under 65. The Brit who looks like a refugee from a rock opera, who is but one big U.S. win away from a major shampoo endorsement, set the tone. At day’s end, he was joined at the summit of the leaderboard by Keegan Bradley. These are the same guys who co-led just a week ago at this time. Neither held the lead to the end, Bradley badly disintegrating on the weekend (75-78).
But as it always goes wherever he draws back a club in anger, Woods was the center of attention. After painting the front nine beige – shooting an even-par 36 – he went all dramatic on the back side. Par was just too boring to even consider. How about five birdies and three bogeys on the closing nine? His 70 left him five back of the lead.
“I felt like I could have got something in the 60s today and got off to not actually the best of starts,” he said. “I hit some bad shots early, rectified that, made a few adjustments, and then went about my business.”
The highlight of his second nine occurred fittingly enough on the signature hole – the island-green par-3 17th. With the pin beckoning suckers at the front of the green, Woods still managed to hit it 13 feet below the hole. Worried much, as the ball just cleared the water. “No, it's fun, right?” Woods smiled. “Underneath the hole, uphill putt?”
There was little room for the ordinary Thursday, not on a day that featured a slam-dunk hole-in-one on No. 17 (by Ryan Moore) and a double-eagle (Harris English holing his second shot on the par-5 11th from 236 yards out).
Recent form apparently mattered little Thursday at the Players. Harman missed five cuts in his seven previous events of 2019. He’s tied for third with Byeong Hun An, who’s 7-for-7 in cuts made this season.
One back of them is a usual suspect, some golfing royalty waving from the balcony of the leaderboard. Rory McIlroy shot 67 and was feeling really pumped about the date switch of the Players. The move from May back to March presents certain softer conditions (more receptive greens and less gnarly rough) that suits his nature.
“I think the course over the last 10 years – or whatever it's been in May (the last 12, actually) – hasn't lent itself to aggressive play,” McIlroy said. “It was sort of position and irons-off-tees and really trying to plot your way around the golf course. I hit drivers on holes today that I would never have hit driver the last few years.
“So, it lends itself to more aggressive play. ... I definitely like the golf course the way it is in March.”
Of all the names north of Woods’, one of the more surprising may belong to Harman.
A guy like him is too easily overlooked. He came into this week ranked 197th on the PGA Tour in driving distance, and that is just not the kind of stat that invokes gasps and stupid exclamations from the gallery around the tee box. Being just downright dogged doesn’t sell like hitting the ball into low earth orbit.
Plus, lately, the former Bulldog, who belongs to the St. Simons commune of golfers, has been hacking it around pretty badly.
“I’m just trying to make a bunch of birdies, man. Win some golf tournaments. I’m sick of missing cuts. That's what we're out here to do, right? Let's go win some tournaments,” he said, staging a one-man pep rally at the end of his round.
Of his current run of missed cuts, Harman was unsparing. “Sometimes you just wear the dunce cap,” he said. “I've been wearing it for about six months. I mean, it's a hard game, guys are good. But I've just been trying to focus back on what I'm good at and try and believe in myself a little bit more.”
Harman could take some encouragement from the words of world No. 2 Justin Rose (who shot a disappointing 74), as he was explaining the egalitarian nature of TPC Sawgrass earlier this week.
“I think that's the beauty of this golf course is that it suits everybody. It suits all different types of game,” Rose said.
“It's fantastic to have a championship that suits the whole Tour, the whole membership. If this was a modern-style golf course where every carry was 300 yards and things widened out, it would be frustrating for 40 percent of the field. I don't think any one of the players here this week is frustrated by this golf course. I think everybody gets here thinking, ‘I've got a good chance to win.’”
Here it bears mentioning that Harman was the only player among the top dozen Thursday who birdied all four of the par-5 holes Thursday. So, behold and be humbled, long hitters.
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