The Last WordMike Weir is getting ready to defend his Masters title, but first he must contend with the 'big, hairy beast' at the Tournament Players Championship.
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
Nearly three decades ago, golf architect Pete Dye and the PGA commissioner of the day, Deane Beman, set out to create a masterpiece.
They took a nondescript piece of Florida swampland a few miles south of Jacksonville at Ponte Vedra Beach and reclaimed it from the snakes and alligators to build the first Tournament Players Club. When they were done, they proudly showed it off to the PGA professionals who were the de facto owners.
"Looks like you ruined a perfectly good swamp," J.C. Snead said. Snead's opinion more or less reflected the prevailing view of the day, a view that has endured in many minds.
Over the years since it opened in 1982, TPC at Sawgrass has been stretched and refined and massaged into the kind of showpiece Beman envisioned but it is, once and for always, a brute. Its signature hole, the par-3 island green 17th, has become, some believe, the most famous golf hole in the world, but the rest of the course is no picnic, either.
TPC at Sawgrass has been the permanent home of the Tournament Players Championship since 1982 and has helped create a special aura around this prestigious event.
This week's 31st renewal has attracted its usual stellar field, including Canadian Mike Weir who comes back off a three-week sabbatical following his win at the Nissan Open and an early exit from the Accenture Match Play. When he tees it up Thursday, it will be exactly a month since his most recent competitive round as he sets the stage for the defence of his Masters title in two weeks.
In the meantime, since Ernie Els missed the cut at the Bay Hill Invitational, Weir now holds the second-longest string of cuts made on Tour, with 19, exactly 100 behind Tiger Woods.
Every year in late March, TPC announces to the world in general that the meaty part of the golf season has arrived. Everything that has happened since January in Hawaii, California, Arizona and southern Florida tends to fade into obscurity once the big boys arrive at Ponte Vedra Beach.
Up until TPC, it's about making a living. This week, it's about making a name. Weir won't be the only one honing his game for Augusta National.
The Players has long been known as the unofficial fifth major. Annually it attracts the best field of the season. With a purse of $6.5 million US ($1.2 million to the winner), it's also the richest of all the official events.
"This is our championship," Tiger Woods said. "People call it the fifth major and it takes that kind of mentality and that kind of perseverance to win on the TPC at Sawgrass. If it's hard and fast, it will be the toughest course we play all year, without a doubt."
For 11 months of the year, TPC at Sawgrass is a busy resort course, jammed with people from all over the world drawn by the lure of its reputation and a chance to play the famed 17th.
"I play a lot of golf here during the year," says local resident and U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk, who has withdrawn from this year's Players Championship with a bad wrist. "But none of that relates at all to the golf course that we play in the tournament. It's just not the same course. Most of the time, it's soft and the greens are receptive. Come tournament time, they suck out all the moisture, grow the rough and let the fairways and greens become as hard as rock. It is a big, hairy beast."
A couple of years back, Scotsman Colin Montgomerie came off the course after a particularly brutal day when the wind was up and the greens were as hard and shiny as a freshly waxed automobile.
"I knew we were in trouble," Montie said, "when we got to the first green and I looked down and saw my reflection."
This week, Davis Love III will try to become the first player to win back-to-back Players titles. He won in impressive style last March, finishing with a 64 to blow away the field by six shots.
Weir has been taking stock of his game the past couple of weeks, tweaking and refining things with coach Mike Wilson. By his own reckoning, his swing is in even better shape than it was a year ago. Early season putting problems have been swept away and Weir expects to be in excellent position to defend.
"There really isn't anything major that I need to correct," he said. "It's just about preventative maintenance."
TPC never has been especially kind to Weir. His best finish in four tries is a tie for 19th two years ago.
"It's a tournament that every player wants to win because it's our tournament," Weir said. "It's also a great way to get your game and your concentration into the kind of condition that will be required at Augusta."
And, for the next week at least, it will be the most captivating piece of swampland on the planet.