As the PGA Tour progressed through the past five decades, some of the old adages have faded away. Fields were smaller and not as deep, meaning you could probably pick the winner any week out of a pool of about 20 players.
Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan was a huge story on tour, given Hogan’s standing and Fleck’s lack thereof. Golf course design and advances in agronomy made the competition tighter and certain players seemed well suited for different courses.
Augusta’s design was famously if not subtly changed when Bobby Jones commented on Jack Nicklaus’ game as “something I’m not familiar with.” Jack’s length and his ability to hit a high fade presumably gave him an advantage at Augusta National.
But all of that seems to have changed. Certainly there are courses that will always favor certain aspects of a player’s game, particularly prodigious length. But as the popularity of the game advanced and more and more prize money was offered, some top athletes started to look at the game as a profession instead of the traditional, football, baseball, basketball, hockey options.
It’s not hard to imagine Tiger Woods as a defensive back in the NFL, or Dustin Johnson brining the ball up for some NBA team. While professional golfers in the last 40 years of the last century came in all shapes and sizes, an emphasis on fitness and technology has brought a standard body type to the Tour. Very few guys out here who compete week in and week out don’t also look like they’d be comfortable putting in a few miles on the treadmill.
Gary Player was considered a bit out of the box with his emphasis on fitness as a player. Today, he’s the standard bearer of what’s happening on Tour. Greg Norman took those ideas to the next level, and Woods looks like he could be the light-heavyweight champion of the world.
So how does that play into who the favorite is at The Players?
Actually, it doesn’t. And that’s the beauty of this golf course and this championship.
Looking over the winners at the Stadium Course, it’s about as varied a group of champions as you’ll find at any event. It doesn’t favor long hitters, nor great putters. It’s not tilted to somebody right or left-handed, a player who hooks or fades the ball as their natural shot.
Greg Norman holds the course record at -24, and he’s considered the longest, straight driver ever on Tour. But Tom Kite, Justin Leonard and Lee Janzen have won here as well, none considered among long hitters in their era. Phil Mickelson won here, and barely hit driver all week. David Duval’s plan was to just hit fairways all week, and it lead him to victory in 1999.
So what thread runs through the Champions Locker Room at The Players? That week, they had control of their entire game.
“This course will make you use every club in your bag,” Tom Kite once told me during a practice round. “And if you’re not hitting all of them good, you’re not going to win.”
Some players think it’s a drivers course, others believe it’s all about the second shot. Twenty years ago a shot on the green on the wrong side was a recipe for an automatic three putt. “You just can’t get it close,” Nick Faldo once said. “Too severe, too fast.”
The golf course has changed, and the names and games of the players have changed as well. But the constant is playing the Stadium Course with the idea that you’re whole game will be tested. Anybody playing well will have a chance to win. You’ll never be comfortable out there.
Greg Norman summed it up after winning here in 1994.
“You have to learn to get comfortable with that uncomfortable feeling,”.