The Tank marches to victory at The Players
There are many ways to remember the 2011 Players Championship. The K.J. Choi-David Toms “Savvy Vets” playoff in the Sunday gloaming; The Al Czervik “My Arm! It’s Broken!”-type move by Tiger Woods after his front nine started going south on Thursday; and the Graeme McDowell “See Sawgrass Via Water Golf Tour” all come to mind.
Yet, when it’s all said and done, and Tim Finchem gave Choi the crystal for the Fifth Beatle Major, err, uh, the Fifth Major, err, uh, The Players Championship, the savvy golf fan will remember the Players for the day Johnny Miller admitted he was wrong.
This was Halley’s Comet-type stuff.
Miller, caught up in the moment, declared Toms’ tee shot on No. 17 the most important shot of his career. Gary Koch, smartly laying in the Sawgrass weeds, piped up: “I’m going to have to disagree with you, Johnny. I’d say it was his lay-up and putt at Atlanta Athletic Club to win his major [PGA Championship] in 2001.”
Holy impudence, Batman! Challenging Miller on NBC late on a Sunday? This was like the kid in “Oliver!” bringing the world to a halt by asking: “Please, sir, may I have some more?”
Incredibly, instead of having Koch fired on the spot, Miller said calmly, after about two minutes of silence: “I concede you were right.”
With that, a wild and woolly and wet and wacked-out Players Championship had its coda.
Yes, we had it all at Finchy’s north Florida bash. A Toms sighting, five years after his last win on the PGA Tour. A marathon Sunday after a Saturday thunderstorm mocked the idea of moving the Players from March to May. McDowell going from “slumping golfer rounding into form and peaking for U.S. Open title defense” to “joining Rory McIlroy in Northern Ireland’s house of pain on the big stage” in 12 short holes on Sunday.
And a great winner in Choi, whom I’ve always admired for becoming the first Korean to earn his tour card, for leaving his home country and forging a new life in America despite a mighty language barrier, for winning eight times now on tour (including a Memorial), and for always being tougher than week-old jerky.
Don’t forget Choi when you do your major championship fantasy drafts. Ranked 34th in the world entering The Players, he hasn’t won a major and will turn 41 next week, but the former power-lifter is always grinding his way into sight. He has six top-10s in majors in his career, including three at Augusta National, counting last month’s tie for eighth. He’s in the hunt a lot. Put it this way: the guy’s nickname is “The Tank,” which is doubly impressive when you consider that his first name is not “Hank” or “Frank.”
Truth told, it was easy to root for both players in the playoff – especially after Toms made a “Hungry Man”-sized birdie on the 72nd hole to force extra time. That’s No. 18 at Sawgrass, by the way, otherwise known as “The Toughest Par-4 in the Milky Way.” Plus, he did it out of a sand-filled divot after a monster drive that had Miller ready to send him flowers and a love note. It was such gutsy stuff, and with McDowell and Luke Donald wearing navy blue to honor the late Seve Ballesteros, it had the potential to be remembered as the “Sand-Filled Divot Birdie,” not unlike Seve’s “Car Park Birdie” at Lytham.
But Toms is 44 and hasn’t won since 2006, and you had to wonder about his nerves in a playoff after being out of the hunt for most of this year and last. Sure enough, his 4-footer for par on 17 lipped out, cruelly and publicly, and Choi had his $1.7 million check. Toms’ consolation runs about $1 million, which isn’t bad, as far as consolation prizes go. It was Toms’ first miss inside five feet all week, which shows what happens when a top-12 ranked putter on tour, and one of the better putters of his generation, faces 73rd hole pressure. Tough deal.
Pressure had reared its ugly head in regulation, too, when Toms inexplicably went for the 16th green in two and wound up getting wet, leading to bogey. If Choi is “The Tank,” then let’s give Toms a nickname and call him “The Lay-Up King” – and I mean that as a compliment. His smart lay-up at Atlanta Athletic Club earned him that major over Phil Mickelson, and Toms flashed lay-up skills on the par-5 No. 2, earning him birdie there. If Toms were a high school basketball coach, his team’s lay-up drills would be the best in the league.
At 16, however, with a lay-up as an option, he went for the green, dunked his golf ball and saw his lead fritter away. Such is life at Sawgrass late on a Sunday, as Miller will remind you.
After all, minutes earlier, Miller said, unprompted: “We’re overdue for somebody to have heartache, to hit it in the water. I don’t want to put any bad karma on Toms, but it seems like we’re due.”
Ouch! Miller sounded like the guy at the ballgame who leans over in the 7th inning and says: “Say, did you notice this guy’s got a perfect game working?” or the neighbor who says over the back fence: “Gee, I hear your kid’s got great grades in school – it’d be a shame if he ever got caught cheating, or brought booze to school.”
Alas, more of Miller’s words were foreboding when he said on the back nine, of Toms’ quest for a win on a marathon day of golf: “It’s a long day for a 44-year-old, Dottie.”
Cue the crowd sound of dismay at 17 when Toms’ putt missed, and you had your storyline.
Maybe Toms’ concentration gave way in the playoff, or maybe his legs tired. Either way, it was primo entertainment – even if Woods had been off the premises since Thursday.
Scorecard of the week
• 42 (front nine)/WD – Tiger Woods, 2011 Players Championship, TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra, Fla.
It’s the chicken-or-the-egg? question for Tiger: Did he shoot 42 on the front nine Thursday because his knee and Achilles are frayed and fried? Or did his knee and Achilles start to “act up” because he was en route to shooting 42, complete with chunked chips you would think would be unrelated to a bum wheel? Only his hairdresser knows for sure. After all, he won a U.S. Open in 2008 on essentially a broken leg.
Granted, in Tiger’s world, a major championship requires heroic deeds, while the so-called “fifth major” ranks so low in Tiger’s world, he has now dropped consecutive WDs on commissioner Tim Finchem and has essentially left a patch of disrespectful rubber in the Sawgrass parking lot on his way out. I don’t want to minimize Tiger’s injury – certainly it could be serious – but let’s not overlook that he is WD’ing The Players, not the Masters.
And yes, the concerns over his knee seem mighty real. Earl Woods’ words loom larger than ever over the golf world. Remember when he was famously quoted way back when he said the only thing that could stop Tiger’s pursuit of history is a “bad injury or a bad marriage?”
Tiger’s late father may be 2 for 2 in posthumous prognostication, may the golf gods rest his soul.
There is little question a left knee that has been surgically repaired four times – including a reconstructed ACL in the summer of ’08 – is no longer something to take lightly when considering Tiger’s future. He’s 35, which is young when you consider that Ben Hogan won eight of his nine majors after the age of 35; but old when you consider the odometer on the knee joint and the ferocity of the torque Tiger puts on the knee, especially with the added musculature of his later years.
So, in summary, we are looking at a Tiger Woods who has not won anywhere in the world in 18 months; at a Tiger Woods who will not have won a major championship in three years come next month’s U.S. Open; and at a Tiger Woods with a knee that might cause Greg Oden to send a sympathy text.
The Post-Tiger World seems more and more real, and it’s a heavy thing to consider.
Mulligan of the week
• The Players is one long “Mully of the Week,” whether McDowell’s pitch Sunday morning on No. 18 inexplicably, sadistically finding water; or Choi’s missed shorties for bird on Nos. 9 and 11; or ANY of the dozens of water balls at No. 17, including McDowell’s late Sunday afternoon humiliation of his tee shot skyrocketing off a railroad tie, the excess altitude heightening the shame. No. 17 is such a carnival hole, they should sell cotton candy and caramel corn greenside to complete the picture.
I’m going with McDowell’s adventure on No. 9 on Sunday, however. Things were starting to leak away from the Ulsterman when he blocked his drive into the forest on No. 6 and yanked his drive on No. 7 into the water, and where the 54-hole leader was finishing his front nine with a third into some shrubbery. Still, an up-and-down wasn’t out of the question – until McDowell took a page out of every duffer’s playbook (cough, cough) and de-celerated into the bush, not moving his ball far enough. He’d make a sinful bogey on the par-5 and fall yet another shot behind en route to a brutal 79.
Johnny Miller picked up on the deceleration and accurately called out: “You can’t de-cel. You gotta get in there and do an Arnold Palmer!”
I loved the image, and the tip. When trapped in the thickest of shrubs, there will be no pussyfooting, no finessing, no “de-cel.” The Psalm of Arnold sayeth: “Always giveth the mightiest of rips! Have at ‘er!”
So let’s go back to the 9th hole, have McDowell channel his inner Arnie, take a lash at that bush and … give that man a mulligan!
Broadcast moment of the week
• “Don’t jump! Don’t jump! ” – Dan Hicks, NBC, “The Turtle Dive” at The Players Championship.
If you haven’t seen the moment where “National Geographic” met the PGA Tour,here it is.
It makes BMOW status over any Miller gem not only for the super slo-mo thrill, not only for how creepily prehistoric turtles look, but also for the metaphor at work. Not only is golf a sport that will push you to the edge, and often push you into the abyss, but after a Sunday at Sawgrass, any number of players must have felt like the turtle, hurtling toward a watery grave.
Take a guy like Charley Hoffman. He arrived at the 17th tee tied-4th, 10-under par, only three shots back. He was in serious “contend” mode, and if he could get to the barn at 11-under, who knows? Maybe it would have been good enough for a playoff.
Except No. 17 is the cruelest of places, a veritable escape-free Alcatraz. Hoffman’s first tee shot caught the slightest bit of wind … splash. He re-teed, hit his third shot and once again: a gust, a push … splash. Hoffman let loose the sort of slow chuckle you hear from a maniac, wandering an asylum at midnight.
Hoffman felt like The Turtle, plunging downward. He felt like The Turtle, surrendering to gravity. Let’s face it: He was The Turtle. And, friends, I know you feel his pain. At some point, we are all The Turtle.
Where do we go from here?
• The Players in May has been screwing with our inner golf calendar. After all, some of us forgot that May is also the time for the Metroplex Double-Dip, the Colonial/Byron Nelson fortnight that brings galleries full of lovely Texas belles in a golf-loving state.
The Colonial is up first, a classic ball-striker’s layout, the opposite of Pete Dye’s Six Flags over Ponte Vedra. Zach Johnson is defending champ, which sort of figures, since he will get you to the fairway more reliably than most human beings. Rickie (Hat Backwards) Fowler, Hunter (Glam Rock Shades) Mahan and Rory (Bad Boy) Sabbatini will tee it up.
Phil Mickelson has won at Hogan’s Alley (Texas-style, not to be confused with L.A.’s Hogan’s Alley, Riviera CC), but won’t be there this year. Neither will McDowell, K.J. Choi or Nick Watney. Suffice to say, Tiger is taking the week off, too. How long we’ll be typing that sentence, goodness only knows.