PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – No surprise that a Tiger Woods drive caused quite a stir in Thursday’s first round of the Players Championship.
Hasn’t that been the part of his game that has captivated us clear back to those amateur days of the mid-1990s? Sure has, except in this case it was a drive at the other extreme, one that went a mere 190 yards.
Pretty stunning, eh? But here’s the really wild part of that popped-up chunk: It didn’t come close to taking honors for being shortest. Not when Adam Scott hit a drive 129 yards off the fourth tee and Ernie Els popped one just 182 at the sixth.
Woods, however, did clip Graeme McDowell, who drove it just 205 yards at the par-4 15th.
That’s right, 129, 182, and 205 were some of the driving yardages attached to the PGA Tour’s finest.
Maybe you’re thinking, What’s the big deal about the ball going too far?
Or you’re probably thinking, Is it time to change the These Guys Are Good promo?
Well, the answer to that is: No, because while they are good, similarly so is the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, thanks to some of the most strategically-placed trees you’ll find on the pro golf landscape.
“I love the trees,” said Brad Faxon, who played in this championship 22 times at Sawgrass and is here this time around to work for NBC. “They help shape your shots here. (They are) necessary.”
Ah, but there are other camps that might suggest the trees are, oh, how about annoying? Or aggravating? Or, what do you think, Mr. McDowell?
“There are a few trees out there that just kind of get into your line of sight, yeah,” said the man from Northern Ireland. Yes, the same one who was victimized Thursday by a large palm tree down the right side of the 15th fairway.
“I was trying to hug my tee shot a little too far right and I clattered into the corner there,” McDowell said. “It was one of those trees I hadn’t actually seen until my ball was flying right at it at abut 150 miles per hour.”
McDowell scrambled to save par, but Scott and Els can’t say the same about their encounters with Sawgrass’ devilish trees that are a huge part of the course’s character.
Driving out of a tight chute at the par-4 fourth, Scott pushed it slightly and immediately heard that frightening sound of bark being splattered. It took attentive marshals to point out that Scott’s ball had ricocheted left and come to rest in a bed of pine needles just 129 yards from the tee.
Els? He lost out to arguably the most intriguing tree at this course. Actually, it’s a big overhanging branch belonging to a tree that sits beyond the sixth tee.
You tell yourself there’s plenty of room, that it’s not possibly in the way, that you cannot hit it . . . yet it looms so prominently you can’t ignore it.
“Especially with a 5-wood off the tee, that’s a sneaky one,” Robert Allenby said. “You’re always thinking about that tree.”
So much so that in practice rounds, McDowell said he teed up a few drivers at the 397-yard hole. “I needed to get comfortable, (because) you feel like you can launch one into that tree.”
Ask Els. The big South African got too steep and sent his tee shot too high, too quickly and also heard the hollow sound of lumber being whacked. His ball shot dead right and was just 182 off the tee, lodged in a spot that required a drop. He eventually made a double-bogey.
Told of Els’ mishap, McDowell shook his head.
“I disagree with that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair. You shouldn’t be having to stand there and manipulate your tee shot. There’s enough manipulation that you’re doing around the golf course, you don’t need to be sliding one low to keep it below the tree. I’m not a big fan of that, to be honest with you.”
So, it’s annoying?
“Unnecessarily annoying,” McDowell said.
But that’s not to suggest McDowell is not a fan of TPC Sawgrass. In so many ways he is, one of them being the manner in which so many of the trees force you to maneuver your golf ball. Yes, even that tree he slammed into at 15.
“That tree’s there to shape the hole for you,” McDowell said. “And I don’t mind trees in the fairway.”
He was referring to those on both the left and right of the fairway at the par-5 ninth, strategically placed so it requires you to really think about your layup shot. And the sprawling tree short and left of the 16th green? McDowell calls it a “big umbrella,” and thinks it serves a great purpose.
“I’m all about golf courses that make you think,” he said. “I’ve played too many golf courses over here (where) you can slap it around and get away with it, because there’s just no knowledge required.”
In no way does that describe this Pete Dye gem. Take the par-4 10th, for instance. Allenby prefers the right-to-left shape on his tee ball, which would seem perfect for this hole, since that’s how it is designed. Instead, he rejects the temptation to draw it off the tee.
Playing for the 14th time here, the Aussie knows “there’s a tree down the right and if you’re a hooker of the ball, it will get you. It’s only 100 yards off the tee, but it’s 50-foot high.”
So Allenby pays respect to the tree and opts for “my straight 3-wood there.”
With a comfort zone at the Stadium Course, Allenby has shot 66-70 to settle in just four off the lead. Two rounds remain and he figures he’ll have to keep pushing forward, because greens are soft, the wind is down, and with the absence of rough “you can get it on the green from anywhere,” Allenby said.
Then he paused, and smiled.
“Unless, you get behind a tree.”