Stadium Course looms as challenge for Tour veterans and rookies alike

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Slow and difficult? Quick and easy?

You might think so, given the contrast in their situations, but be careful. Brendon Todd making his debut in The Players Championship at age 29 and in his 103rd PGA Tour tournament and Billy Hurley III doing so at 32 and in his 80th start shouldn’t be held against Justin Thomas, who at the tender age of 22 is making his debut in just his 29th tournament.

What it all proves is, there is no blueprint for this PGA Tour business, and that definitions can be misleading.

Thomas is a rookie on the PGA Tour. Todd and Hurley are rookies in this tournament. But none of them feels like a rookie.

“I feel very comfortable,” Thomas said. “This tournament has a little different feel than the other ones. It’s our championship. It’s one of the best fields (of the year). It’s a big deal, and I definitely take it as an accomplishment to being here my rookie year. But . . . “

Having finished within the top 15 six times and sitting 43rd in FedEx Cup points, Thomas felt he had earned a spot, that sitting as first alternate as late as last Friday was “a different feeling for me.” Then Victor Dubuisson of France withdrew, and Thomas got the call.

The feeling was one of relief, not surprise. It’s not as if youngsters his age aren’t doing more impressive things in golf — good friend Jordan Spieth winning the Masters, for instance — but Thomas appreciates that he will be among the 144 teeing it up in this $10 million flagship event.

Though they’ve taken more circuitous routes — Todd plying his trade on the Tour and in South Africa; Hurley giving five years to the Navy after graduating from the Naval Academy — the veterans are not taking their appearances at The Players Championship for granted. But neither are they feeling wide-eyed and in awe.

“I don’t feel like a rookie, and I’m happy about that,” said Todd, who is in his fifth PGA Tour season. “It’s a good thing to come here and not feel like a rookie.”

Similarly, Hurley laughed when told that it’s hard to believe that he’s making his debut in The Players Championship. “You’re the third one to say that to me today,” he said.

Playing his third PGA Tour season, Hurley also has had the unique perspective of a former serviceman who has traveled the world, so it’s unlikely that he’ll be shaken by the tee shot at the island-green 17th. In golf terms, Hurley also draws on this: “For me, the biggest thing this week is that I got to play two majors last year.”

Todd had a breakthrough season in 2014, winning his first tournament, the HP Byron Nelson Championship, and making it all the way to East Lake for the Tour Championship. But if he doesn’t feel like a rookie, given his experience, he concedes that he’s likely to find the Stadium Course a challenge.

“I think the one thing I’ve found on Tour is, you may not be a rookie, but if you’re going to an event for the first time, there’s probably going to be something that surprises you that week about the golf course,” he said.

Hurley agreed. “Nobody has ever gotten any golf course figured out,” he said. “And this one certainly is one that I don’t know if you’ll ever figure it out.”

From his perspective, Thomas can put a finger on the development of his comfort zone. He was in the final pairing in Round 3 of the Sony Open in January, alongside Jimmy Walker and Matt Kuchar. Then, a month later, Thomas played in the final pairing on Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which might feature the loudest and most raucous crowd of the year.

“Of all places, it was as wild as it gets,” Thomas said. “It was good for me.”

In front of tens of thousands, Thomas hit his tee shot at the stadium-hole 16th to 8 feet and made the putt. “I’m getting more comfortable in those situations,” Thomas said. “It was a pretty cool moment for me.”

If he were to have a few more over the next few days, it wouldn’t be a surprise — rookie or not.

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