Published May 14, 2012
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – After combing through some of golf's meaningless statistics, this might be the best explanation for how Matt Kuchar won The Players Championship:
He didn't empty all of his golf balls into the water when he played the island-green 17th hole in the final round.
He was really on his game last week.
He shot the lowest score.
Golf is impossible to predict as it is. Throw in the mystery that is the TPC Sawgrass, and there's no telling who beats the strongest and deepest field in golf. You've heard the line about there being horses for courses? This is more like predicting the dot race on video screens at a baseball game.
"There's no other course that less people have worked out than this one," Geoff Ogilvy said, who is still trying to do just that. He closed with a 69 on Sunday. It was only his third round in the 60s in 11 years at The Players Championship. This from a guy who has won a U.S. Open and two World Golf Championships. He's got a little bit of game.
Perhaps more startling is Tiger Woods.
By now, everyone knows that Sawgrass is not as friendly as Firestone or Torrey Pines for the 14-time major champion. When he tied for 40th last week, it was the fifth time he has finished out of the top 30. Woods has never finished out of the top 30 more than twice at any other tournament.
Now consider this: Despite a level of consistency unseen in this generation — 72 wins over 15 years, and finishing among the top three in 44 percent of his tournaments — he has only seriously contended twice at Sawgrass. He was runner-up to Hal Sutton in 2000 and picked up his only win the next year.
Throw in the other three players from the "Big Four" of that generation — Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh — and it doesn't get much better. Mickelson had a chance to win only once at Sawgrass, the year he won in 2007. Singh's only good chance was in 2001, when he was runner-up to Woods. Els never has come close.
"Everyone who has played here, they have never really been that consistent here," Woods said. "I mean, everyone. Going from the time Jerry Pate won, no one has really contended here or been in contention 70, 80 percent of the time. Some golf courses, you get certain guys playing well there no matter what."
Rory McIlroy is not off to a roaring start at Sawgrass. In his three times at The Players Championship, he has yet to make par or make it to the weekend. This year, he became the first No. 1 player in the world to miss the cut at Sawgrass since Greg Norman in 1996. McIlroy is only 23, and he'll figure it out one of these days — maybe even next year.
Think of Sawgrass and the image of Fred Couples comes to mind as a two-time winner. The first two times Couples was at Sawgrass, he missed the cut. The next year, he won. And the following year, he made the cut with one shot to spare. Davis Love III, another two-time winner, captured his first Players Championship in his seventh try. He missed the cut three times and was disqualified once before then.
Steve Stricker and David Toms, both reliable customers, have missed as many cuts as they have made at Sawgrass.
It should come as no surprise that of the PGA Tour events that have been around for at least 30 years, The Players Championship is the only one without a back-to-back winner.
"It doesn't seem like the same names come to the top there," Stewart Cink said. "And since you mentioned Tiger, maybe the opposite applies. It's not 'horses for courses.' There are some people who just dread playing here."
Unlike other courses — particularly those used at the four majors — a phrase seldom heard at Sawgrass is, "It really fits my eye." Far more common are words like "awkward" and "uncomfortable."
That's not necessarily a bad thing.
"You go through the history of winners we've had," Rod Pampling said. "Big hitters, short hitters ... everyone has a chance. It's one of the very few tournaments open to anyone. If you're on, you can say it's your kind of course. But if you're not on, my God. I found that out. I was just a touch off with my driver and I was thinking, 'How am I going to make par?' Never mind birdie. That's the thing about this golf course.
"Every shot, you've got to play well," he said. "When you're on and hitting those shots, you play well."
Kuchar was on. The best player won last week. There should be no disputing that.
It's the lack of the usual suspects atop the leaderboard that is confounding.
Mickelson has shown up at Augusta National with little game and even less confidence and the light comes on. He loves the Masters because he doesn't have to play perfect to score. That doesn't work at Sawgrass. So when someone brought up local knowledge, it was all Mickelson could do to keep from laughing.
"I'm not sure how much local knowledge is required here," he said. "You just have to execute. There's really not a way to miss your way around this course, like Augusta, where you can miss in the right spots and still salvage pars. Here, if you miss shots, even if you're in the right spot, you're most likely not going to salvage par."
Ogilvy grew up playing courses in Melbourne where there was a good place to miss the green to secure par, or a bad side to miss the green and pay for it. He contends that even at Augusta, it's relatively easy to make par on every hole by playing it safe.
Augusta is no Sawgrass, with or without an island.
"There's no way to play safe and guarantee no damage," Ogilvy said.
Still, nothing intrigued him quite like Woods' record at Sawgrass, how a guy could play so consistently well and suddenly become unpredictable.
"It's a tournament Tiger played 15 times and only contended twice. There's something odd there," Ogilvy said. "Maybe that's the genius of the golf course. Or maybe that's the flaw."