Golf

Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Koepka looks like golf’s future 2018

You might have heard Jim Nantz at the end of the CBS telecast of the PGA Championship mention Gary Player’s prediction that “athletes will eventually choose golf and we’ll have players hitting it 400 yards.  It’ll be a different game.”  Player has said that for a while, but it was especially poignant this week as Brooks Koepka won at Bellerive, the same place Player captured the US Open in 1965.  His 72-hole score was two-over.  Koepka won at sixteen under.

After his victory, Koepka revealed his secret.

“I try to eat pretty clean,” he told reporters.  “We had salmon last night, the chef from The Floridian works for me.  Plus I lift six or seven days a week.”

Wait. What?  “I lift six or seven days a week?” As a golfer? That was heresy as little as 10 years ago.

Remember when everybody blamed Johnny Miller’s fall from the top of the game on his working on his farm out West?  Lifting weights was strictly taboo for golfers. Player, Greg Norman and then Tiger Woods changed all that.  Plus the advances in athletic training brought golfers to a new level of fitness, flexibility and strength.  It’s not just doing bicep curls or bench press.  Golf specific exercises, increasing swing speed, “smash factor” and ball velocity have changed the game as Player predicted.

There’s lots of talk about 300+ yard drives.  But what about the nine-irons from 181?  And four-iron from 248?  I mean those are astounding numbers. They can bend the clubs all they want, but when you’re hitting pitching wedge from 150, that’s a different game.

I met Brooks Koepka at his club near his home in West Palm Beach in January of 2015.

“This kid can really play,” our host said as Brooks and I shook hands.

Sitting in the grillroom we had a few laughs and the subject of the Super Bowl came up.

“I’ll be at Phoenix that week,” Brooks told me about his plan to play the PGA TOUR event called the Waste Management Open at the TPC of Scottsdale. “Look me up, I’m going out there by myself.”

So when I got to Phoenix a little early to fulfill my duties as the Hall of Fame voter for Jacksonville, I did head out to the TPC at Scottsdale. It’s known for the massive crowds that attend every year and that week was no different.  Except it rained for most of the tournament.  I went to the pressroom to look for Brooks during one of the delays but the PGA Tour rep (Doug Milne from Jacksonville) said he had just left.

“Tell him I came by to say hi,” I said, a bit disappointed.  I knew I’d be working for most of the weekend and probably wouldn’t have a chance to catch up with Koepka.

Of course he went on to win the tournament.

Koepka has now won three majors and is only the fifth player ever to win the US Open and the PGA in the same year.  His wrist injury earlier this season kept him out of the Masters, but he’ll be among the favorites in April in Augusta.

Although he’s shown to be cool under pressure and dominant with his game, Koepka has been overshadowed each time he’s won a major.  First by the golf course at Erin Hills, then by it seemed everybody else at Shinnecock Hills and by Tiger’s resurgence at the PGA.  Brooks will use that as continued motivation going forward.  He’s that kind of competitor.

So beware.  If Tiger was the tip of the spear of great athletes changing golf, Koepka is the harbinger of what the game will look like from now on.

I don’t think Tiger will win again

Oh, he might take a trophy home from a PGA Tour event where say, 12 of the top 30 players in the world are in the field.  But even he won’t count that as a win.  He’ll say it feels good, and add it puts him on the right path to his goals.

And that’s winning a Major.  Which won’t happen.

My friend and colleague Tim Rosaforte recently quoted a playing partner on the Golf Channel saying of Tiger after watching him at The Open, “He can get there from here.”

Watching Tiger on Sunday at Carnoustie did give you that feeling. A bit of nostalgia and hope after taking the lead that we were seeing the biggest comeback in golf since Ben Hogan. A couple of missteps on the inward nine kept everybody else in the game, and Francesco Molinari became the Champion Golfer of the Year.

It’s not that Tiger’s not capable of winning again. You might remember he finished one shot behind Paul Casey at the Valspar Championships in March. His presence in the field and his name on the leaderboard put four times the number of fans on the golf course in Tampa. The next week at Bay Hill anticipation was soaring.

I asked him in Orlando if when he saw his name on the leaderboard the previous week if the feeling was the same as before.  “Yes” he said directly with that grin we’ve come to know as a sign of supreme self-confidence.

Even hitting it OB on 16 and a bogey-bogey-par finish for a tie for 5th left everybody expecting a Tiger-esque run and a win soon.  Rory McIlroy won that week instead with a Tiger-esque finish, a birdie on his final hole.

Just looking at those three tournaments where Tiger has played well and been in contention there’s a common thread as to why he didn’t win:  He just got beat.  And it’s his own fault.  Not that he didn’t play well, it’s just somebody played better.  There’s no defense in golf.

Name any of the top players in the world right now and they’ll say Tiger was their inspiration to become a golfer and play at the highest level.  And there are too many of those who can go low in the final round, come out of nowhere, and win.

The modern players work on their games for sure, and use Trackman and other devices to optimize their equipment, but fitness, specific to golf, has jumped the game to another level. There was a par 4 at the US Open that was 505 yards long.  Both Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson hit irons off the tee. Both of those guys look like they could have played any sport professionally, but they chose golf

Fitness in golf might have started with Gary Player and was refined through the years by players like Greg Norman, but Tiger was the start of great athletes choosing golf as their main sport.  Look at players all over the world and they all look about the same.  At the top everybody’s between 5-10 and 6-2 and weighs somewhere between 160 and 185 lbs. There are no more George Archer’s or Rod Curl’s in the game.  No self-taught swings, no Lee Trevino’s coming from some obscure place in West Texas to become a Hall of Famer.

And Tiger started all that.

He helped put enough money in the game where it was a viable alternative.  Winnings at every TOUR event jumped 40%.  Payouts for TV rights went through the roof.  And great athletes started choosing the game.

Which is why he’ll contend and play well enough to win but won’t.  Just because there are so many players in today’s game that can, and will.  They have the game, they’ve played top-flight amateur and college golf, and they’re not afraid.

I’ve followed the arc of many athletic careers from start to finish. Even the biggest sports celebrities’ start somewhere, so knowing Tim Tebow, as a high school sophomore is how I remember him best. But only two athletes in my career though have exceeded the hype: LeBron James and Tiger Woods.

Starting with his appearance at the LA Open in 1992, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was a name that every sports journalist who covered golf knew. “Tiger” was a unique enough name; the story of how he got it was enough to make any profile pretty colorful.

I first met Tiger in 1994 when he played in the US Amateur at the TPC Stadium course as a skinny kid with a big hat and a bigger game. “These one-on-one interviews,” was his answer when I asked the 18-year-old if there was anything he didn’t like about how his life was going. As his fame grew, he stopped doing those “one-on-one” interviews and eventually only made news on his own web site.

There was an incident where Tiger told an off-color joke to a magazine reporter in New York who broke the “off the record” code, printed it, and Tiger felt betrayed. He really clammed up after that.

I’ve been critical of Woods’ demeanor throughout his career, His nickname early in his career on tour was “Erkel” after the sitcom character that had few social skills and was generally nerdy. Tiger approached being the most famous person on the planet, something few people know about. But his actions didn’t come close to Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer or others in that same situation.

Changing his body and the violence of his swing took a toll on his body and he eventually broke down. His off course issue was well documented and publicized. And his bout with prescription drugs seemed to be the bottom.

I ran into him in early 2017 at a retirement party at his club in Jupiter. I was asked to kind of “save” him from being pestered by everybody there since he knew me a little bit and might be comfortable talking with me. We spent some time together and for the first time I felt sorry for the guy. He was as awkward as I’d ever seen him. Could barely hold a conversation. Small talk was a chore. Ok, maybe it was me, but I really felt bad for him.

Fast-forward about six months; Tiger’s gone through a rehab after being pulled over for DUI. His body is healing and his golf game is returning. I ran into him at the same club as I was hitting some putts on the practice green.

“Hey Sam, you know Tiger,” my host said as I walked to put away my putter with Woods pulling up in his cart. “Of course,” I said as we shook hands.

Tiger said, “Jacksonville, right?” as he sat back in his cart. I smiled and said, “Yep” anticipating a quick exit as usual.

Instead, the three of us sat there for about 15 minutes talking about everything guys talk about, sharing laughs and jabs, just like it’s supposed to happen. He mentioned that he really liked The Players returning to March.

When he left, I turned to my host and said, “What happened to him? He’s like a different person.”

And that’s the same person we’ve seen in his return to the limelight. He tells jokes and smiles. Remember Tiger saying that “second was the first loser” early in his career?  He talked about that a couple of weeks ago with a whole different perspective after his finish at Carnoustie with his children in attendance.

“They saw their dad get into contention and end up leading the tournament. End up losing the tournament. But I tried until the very end,” Tiger said the week before teeing it up at the WGC in Akron.

“They saw how much I was grinding. They said, ‘Well, you weren’t going to win.’ I said, ‘I know I wasn’t going to win, but that doesn’t stop me from grinding.’ That is a teachable moment because they were there in present, in person. Sometimes you can’t always see that on TV.”

So whatever you attribute it to, being humbled, being a parent, being injured, whatever, I’m hoping Tiger keeps using that same personality.

There’s a steely determination necessary to win in sports at the highest level. Tiger has shown over and over that he has that. I suppose keeping it there, inside the ropes, will take an adjustment. But it’ll be worth it.

Authentic Duval shines as golf analyst

I’ve always liked David Duval. I know people have said he’s aloof and distant. He’s described himself as “quiet and reserved.” That might have been his personality as a golfer and it worked for him.

Not anymore.

Working for the Golf Channel, Duval is the best analyst on television. Not just the best golf analyst, the best analyst, period. John Smoltz is good on baseball. Eddie Olczyk is good on hockey. Troy Aikman is good on football. Duval is really good on golf.

Much like his heyday as a player, being No. 1 in the world and the only player who Tiger Woods admitted got his attention on the leaderboard, Duval is fearless as a broadcaster.

And that’s not easy to do.

As a player you can insulate yourself inside the ropes. You can be distant with fans and the media. You can wear Oakley wraparounds to help keep everybody out. And you can lose yourself in the game. (BTW, those glasses originally were used to cut down the pollen in his eyes when he wore hard contacts in college.)

If you want to be any good at television though, you have to be authentic, actually yourself, not acting like yourself.

We see it every day when we watch television. Some people have it, others don’t. Duval is fearless on TV in a way that’s rare: He’s prepared, has an opinion, and if you disagree with him, it’s OK. You’re not going to change his mind.

If you’re authentic on television, when you walk into a room full of people, only you know that all of those people in the room know the real you. And all of those people watching on TV know the real you. And without a certain level of confidence and preparedness, that can be terrifying. Duval never revealed that as a player. Now, he does it every time he appears on television.

While he still thinks of himself as a golfer and a player who can compete, Duval is a television analyst of the best kind.

“I think it’s the rare person who is 40 to 55 years old who doesn’t think of themselves as a golfer still. That’s how I view it,″ he said. “That’s how I go about it when I analyze something.”

Unlike with golf, he was good almost immediately on television. It took him two years to win his first tournament in college. It took him a while to get used to the week-to-week grind of professional golf. But once he did, he was dominant. We texted a few times when he started on the Golf Channel, exchanging some ideas and a few tips I had picked up over the years in front of the camera. But it was easy to see he was going to succeed.

“There is a difference in being critical and being mean. Critical is fine. Mean is not,” Duval told the Global Golf Post about being on television.

One thing Duval always seemed to have is perspective. Even at a young age he looked at things differently. Some of that came from the loss of his older brother Brent. That tragedy for the Duval family has been well-documented. But David has always seen things from a different angle.

As comfortable with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as he would be with a beer and a sports magazine in his playing days, Duval’s smarts go beyond golf. And that’s essential to be able to sit there and talk without a script (ad-lib is the TV term). A view from 30,000 feet as well as an intimate knowledge of the subject allows Duval to speak with authority. Not act like an authority, but be an authority.

“He’s good because he has good knowledge,” Nick Faldo a six-time major champion and now the lead analyst on CBS, has said about Duval. “Players who have really felt it, not just played it or walked the walk, the players who have really felt it – and he’s felt both the big climb to get to No. 1 and that story and that phenomenal run of wins and gets a major and then for whatever reason went on a different walk of life – he can add an awful lot of golf life experience to it.”

I first met David before he got to high school. His dad Bob was the pro at Plantation and invited me out to play with the two of them. Needless to say, even that young, David was an impressive player. Long, straight, great touch, it was clear he was going to be special.

He got to the top of the game and instead of enjoying it, he found it isolating.

“Some guy asked me about Bosnia,” he once said to me after a press conference. “Just because I’m ranked No. 1. They didn’t care what I thought when I was No. 2,” he said shaking his head.

Now 46 years old, he played in The Open Championship this week at Carnoustie as a past Champion Golfer of the Year. Once you win The Open, you can play there each year until you’re 60. He shot 80 in the first round on Thursday and withdrew.

I will admit David gave me the sporting thrill of a lifetime 10 years ago at the Masters.

“Who’s caddying for you in the Par 3 at Augusta,” I said to David one day at his house when he was near the top of his game.

“You are,” he answered with a laugh. And sure enough that year I was on the bag Wednesday of Masters week. (There’s a full accounting of that day on samsportsline.com)

We had two memorable exchanges that day; one was on the first tee.

“Two rules,” David said as he pulled a club from his bag. “Keep up and don’t lean on the putter.”

On the 8th tee David grabbed 9-iron out of the bag. “It’s wedge,” I said. “I don’t think so, the pin is all the way back,” he quickly responded. And promptly hit the ball in the water behind the green.

“I guess it was wedge,” he said with an easy laugh and a bow to the crowd. That gave everybody a glimpse of the David Duval we now see on golf broadcasts.

At some point Duval is going to move off the Golf Channel and into Johnny Miller’s chair as the lead analyst on NBC’s coverage of golf.

I’ve seen Duval first-hand play golf as the best player in the world. Now we all get to see him as the best analyst on television.

David Duval, Best Analyst On TV

I’ve always liked David Duval. I know people have said he’s aloof and distant. He’s described himself as “quiet and reserved.” That might have been his personality as a golfer and it worked for him.

Not anymore.

Working for the Golf Channel, Duval is the best analyst on television. Not just the best golf analyst, the best analyst, period. John Smoltz is good on baseball. Eddie Olczyk is good on hockey. Troy Aikman is good on football. Duval is really good on golf.

Much like his heyday as a player, being #1 in the world and the only player who Tiger Woods admitted got his attention on the leaderboard, David is fearless as a broadcaster.

And that’s not easy to do.

As a player you can insulate yourself inside the ropes. You can be distant with fans and the media. You can wear Oakley wraparounds to help keep everybody out. And you can lose yourself in the game. (BTW those glasses originally were used to cut down the pollen in his eyes when he wore hard contacts in college.)

If you want to be any good at television though you have to be willing to expose yourself. Unless you’re authentic, actually yourself, not acting like yourself, you look like an actor or a phony on TV.

We see it every day when we watch television. Some people have it, others don’t. Duval is fearless on TV in a way that’s rare: He’s prepared, he has an opinion, and if you disagree with him, it’s OK. You’re not going to change his mind.

If you’re authentic on television, when you walk into a room full of people, only you know that all of those people in the room know the real you. And all of those people watching on TV know the real you. And without a certain level of confidence and preparedness, that can be terrifying. Duval never revealed that as a player. Now, he does it every time he appears on television.

While he still thinks of himself as a golfer and a player who can compete, Duval is a television analyst of the best kind.

“I think it’s the rare person who is 40 to 55 years old who doesn’t think of themselves as a golfer still. That’s how I view it. That’s how I go about it when I analyze something.”

Unlike with golf, he was good almost immediately on television. It took him two years to win his first tournament in college, but then he was dominant. It took him a while to get used to the week-to-week grind of professional golf. But once he did, he was dominant. We texted a few times when he started on the Golf Channel, just exchanging some ideas and a few tips I had picked up over the years in front of the camera. But it was easy to see he was going to be great.

“There is a difference in being critical and being mean. Critical is fine. Mean is not,” Duval told Global Golf Post about being on television

One thing Duval has always seemed to have is perspective. Even at a young age he looked at things differently. Some of that came from the loss of his older brother Brett. That tragedy for the Duval family has been well documented. But David has always seen things from a different angle.

As comfortable with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as he would be with a beer and a sports magazine in his playing days, Duval’s smarts go beyond just golf. And that’s essential to be able to sit there and talk without a script (ad-lib is the term in TV). A view from 30,000 feet as well as an intimate knowledge of the subject allows David to speak with authority. Not act like an authority, but be an authority.

“He’s good because he has good knowledge,” Nick Faldo a six-time major champion and now the lead analyst on CBS has said about Duval. “Players who have really felt it, not just played it or walked the walk, the players who have really felt it – and he’s felt both the big climb to get to No. 1 and that story and that phenomenal run of wins and gets a major and then for whatever reason went on a different walk of life – he can add an awful lot of golf life experience to it.”

I first met David before he got to high school. His dad Bob was the pro at Plantation and invited me out to play with the two of them. Needless to say, even that young, David was an impressive player. Long, straight, great touch, it was clear he was going to be something special

He got to the top of the game and instead of enjoying it, he found it isolating.

“Some guy asked me about Bosnia,” he once said to me after a press conference. “Just because I’m ranked #1. They didn’t care what I thought when I was #2,” he said shaking his head.

Now 46-years old, he played in The Open Championship this week at Carnoustie as a past Champion Golfer of the Year. Once you win The Open, you can play there each year until you’re sixty.

I will admit David gave me the sporting thrill of a lifetime ten years ago at the Masters.

“Who’s caddying for you in the Par 3 at Augusta,” I said to David one day at his house when he was near the top of his game.

“You are,” he answered with a laugh. And sure enough that year I was on the bag Wednesday of Masters week.

(There’s a full accounting of that day on samsportsline.com)

We had two memorable exchanges that day; one was on the first tee.

“Two rules,” David said as he pulled a club from his bag. “Keep up and don’t lean on the putter.”

On the 8th tee David grabbed 9-iron out of the bag. “It’s wedge,” I said. “I don’t think so, the pin is all the way back,” he quickly responded. And promptly hit the ball in the water behind the green.

“I guess it was wedge,” he said with an easy laugh and a bow to the crowd. That gave everybody a glimpse of the David Duval we now see on golf broadcasts.

When he left Episcopal for Georgia Tech, it was a surprise move to play college golf where nobody expected him to go. “Where’d you want me to play?” he asked me when I wondered why he was going to Atlanta. He was a four-time All-American for the Yellow Jackets.

He made a splash as an amateur, leading the BellSouth Classic by a couple of shots at the 54-hole mark in 1992. But it took him a while to figure out how to be a pro. “You have to get used to it,” he said of the traveling circus the tour can be, week after week. “The travel, eating, sleeping, playing, you need to figure it out.”

And once he did, Duval fulfilled his awesome potential, ascending to number one in the world. He won 11 of 34 tournaments he played in just over a one-year period. He shot 59 in the last round at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, making an eagle on the final hole for a come from behind win.

He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated behind his Oakley sunglasses. He contended in the Masters and the US Open, and he won The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2001. He was the #1 golfer in the world. He won in Japan later that year.

At some point Duval is going to move off the Golf Channel and into Johnny Miller’s chair as the lead analyst on NBC’s coverage of golf.

I’ve seen Duval first-hand play golf as the best player in the world. Now we all get to see David as the best analyst on television.

Bandon Dunes: A “Must Play” Golf Experience

So I topped two off the first tee.

After weeks of anticipation and preparation for a trip to Bandon Dunes, that’s right, I topped two off the first tee in our first day of play at Bandon Trails.

That’s something I haven’t done in probably 30 years. And I hit them so bad I’m surprised they didn’t hit my left foot. I trundled down into the high grass and heather with our caddie, Cowboy, in tow in search of one or both. In the first 15 yards or so I found a half dozen balls and Jim, my playing partner said, “Just drop one out here by me.”

I walked over to where he had put his drive in the fairway and threw a ball down. Jim was 160 out and hit a nice shot to an elevated green to about ten feet. I stood over mine just trying to make contact and move it toward the green.

And I hit 7-iron in the hole.

Little did I know that 10-minute sequence would be a microcosm of my experience at Bandon Dunes. While I didn’t top two off of any other tees, Bandon Dunes can be humbling, hard, spectacular, beautiful, awe-inspiring and nearly perfect in any 10-minute stretch.

Traveling all the way to southwest Oregon, I didn’t expect to see anybody I knew. But on the massive range at the practice area, the guy taking swings just one spot away from me was a golf writer friend I’ve known for more than 35 years.

“Probably the best golf resort in the world,” he said when I said hi and he learned it was my first trip there.

And he’s probably right.

It’s a full day of travel from the east coast. We looked into flying to North Bend Airport but United only goes twice a week from Denver and San Francisco and if the flight doesn’t go, you’re stuck for a few days if you can’t make other arrangements. So we flew to Portland and rented a car for the 4-½ drive. Being from Florida, the approach to Portland featured a fly-by of Mt. Hood, something you don’t see every day, and the drive showcases some of the most spectacular scenery toward southwest Oregon.

We stopped in Eugene to take a look at the University of Oregon campus and have lunch, then drove straight to Bandon Dunes. It’s pretty remote, and it’s the only thing there. So if you like golf and want to get away, it’s the perfect spot. We drove the property to get a “lay of the land” then walked across the street for a nice snack at The Inn.

While the resort is remote, it doesn’t lack anything you’d want on a golf trip. Great courses, several nice restaurants, a spot for a cocktail and cigar to watch the sunset, a massage center and a whirlpool (co-ed) for sore (walking) muscles.

We played the four golf courses from south to north, in order, starting with Bandon Trails, a Coor/Crenshaw design cut into the hillside.

Spectacular holes seemed stacked one after another. Each more beautiful than the next. It’s not contrived at all, rather it looks like they cleared a few trees where the golf holes were already laid out. Soaring pines with rugged, rough edges that frame each hole.

Jim called it “a mature adult” adding Bandon Trails just says “Here I am, let’s see how you do.” Like every other course at the resort, “The Trails” shares some similar characteristics with the other three courses.

The holes change with the weather. Whichever way the wind is blowing, that effects how the hole plays. “No two steps are the same,” is how one guest described walking 72 holes along the Pacific Coast. Save for a couple of forced carries, you can play most along the ground. “It’s as good for a 22 handicap as it is for a two,” a friend explained.

“OK, get ready” Cowboy said as we walked off the 14th green. What we didn’t know was turning back toward the clubhouse, 15, 16, 17 and 18 played directly into about a 25 mph wind. Sixteen is a par 5, straight up a hill, a tough hole in any conditions. I hit driver, 5 iron, rescue, gap wedge and made a 15 footer downhill, downwind, left to right I had no business making for one of the best bogey sixes ever. During that stretch I had two putts blown off line. If you’ve never experienced that I had to lean into the wind and it absolutely changes your golf swing. As hard as it was, it was equally interesting. Apparently the wind blows there for most of the summer but starts to lay down in September. It wasn’t like that for the rest of our trip, although wind did play a factor on every shot, on every course, on every day.

Bring your walking shoes to Bandon Dunes and I’d suggest walking three or four miles a day before you get there.Trails is the toughest walk of the four, meandering up the mountain and then over it at 14. You go back down into it the valley and then straight back up and into the wind.

I’m wondering if as the golfing population gets older if carts won’t be a part of the experience at some point.

We played Bandon Dunes, the original course on our second day. The wind was still up but not quite as fierce. This course feels big and has some of the most beautiful vistas anywhere. The 4th hole goes out to the Pacific and is considered one of the most beautiful golf holes in the world.

Because it is.

As you play the holes along the ocean they are so spectacular, it’s hard to remember to concentrate and play golf. Wind is always a factor and the design and set up try to match that.

Our third day we made our way to Pacific Dunes. It’s big and beautiful and every hole has it’s own character. As the wind comes off the Pacific there are some natural edges that frame the course. But good shots are rewarded at Pacific Dunes. If you’re hitting it straight, you’ve got no problem. It features several holes along the ocean, some north/south, some south/north so depending on the season the wind will be either in your face or at your back.

I haven’t played everywhere but I have been a few places and it’s not hard to say eleven at Pacific Dunes is one of the most beautiful holes in the world. The back nine starts with two par three’s at and on the Pacific. Like the other courses at the resort, 17 and 18 are two very tough finishing holes.

On our last day we played the newest course, the links called Old Macdonald

Standing on the first tee it feels like you’re in Scotland. Absolutely authentic. That was the intent when Tom Doak designed the course, paying homage to features used by C.B. Macdonald in the past. Several holes have design features that look like they were transported to the Oregon coast from Scotland. You need to play the ball on the ground more often than you think. I probably hit five different shots that could be described as “bump and run” and I probably should have played a couple more. This would be a good course to play first if you’re planning a trip to get adjusted to the elements, tight lies, and green speeds. Like every other course at Bandon Dunes, it has some beautiful vistas.

And again, 18 is a tough finishing hole.

Going to Bandon Dunes to play all four courses should be planned as a “big” golf trip. Take your time getting there and getting home. Enjoy the scenery and make the travel part of the adventure. You don’t have to leave the resort, but if you must, a little six mile drive down the coast to Bandon-by-the-Sea is a nice diversion. We had dinner at Edgewaters and the food was great. Much like everywhere we went, the staff was very friendly. It’s also in a pretty interesting building that has a great history behind it. And has one of the best sunsets you’ll ever see if the clouds have lifted. Even the locals stop to take a picture.

Accommodations are set up generally for two players to share a room. Two nice queen beds, big rooms, two vanities, good size shower. My room looked like it needed some sprucing up, and perhaps it’s on the list for renovation. Nonetheless, a deer and fawn walked by the sliding glass door one morning, apparently just taking a stroll.

All of the things I’d heard about Bandon Dunes were true. If you’re interested in golf, it’s a “must play.”

Best “Feel Good” Win At THE PLAYERS

There’s nothing like a feel good story in sports. And in American sports, the comeback, feel good story is always the best.

We’ve had all kinds of winners at THE Players Championship. Household names like Jack and Tiger, hometown champions in Mark McCumber and David Duval, and unlikely names on the trophy like Stephen (Ames) and Tim (Clark).

But never a real “feel good” story like Webb Simpson. Nuts and bolts, he won at 18-under par, despite making double-bogey on the 72nd hole. He tied the course record of 63 looked in control the whole time. He’s now one of seven players to have held both The Players crystal and the US Open trophy in their career. He also completes an American sweep of the Majors and the Players, Not done since Tiger Woods held all five.

All from a guy who was about a half a step from quitting golf completely. Simpson had success in his professional career, winning on the PGA Tour and US Open. He found a way to get the ball in the hole and win, despite not being exceptionally long and using a “belly” putter. When that style form of putting was outlawed, his golfing fortunes began to sink.

“You know, I think I had been a pro for eight years, seven years, and you get used to playing at a level that you know you’re capable of, and then for — you go a year or two years playing below that capability, and it starts to get at you,” Simpson said Sunday. “And I actually think it’s easier to work hard when you’re playing well. So it made working hard and staying positive and present that much harder.”

Noting the support he had from his “team” Webb admitted there were nights at the dinner table with his wife that he’d be in tears, ready to give up golf completely. But her encouragement, as well as his relationship with his caddy Paul Tesori kepts him going. Ironically, it was a disagreement with Tesori on the course that convinced him what he needed to do to get better.

Yeah, the lowest point ended up being the turning point. It was 2016 at Barclays at Bethpage Black,” he explained. “I thought I missed the cut by one. I ended up making the cut. But Paul and I got in an argument on the golf course, and it was just frustration pent up in both of us. We go sit in my car for about an hour. I’m so frustrated, I’m over it, and he is, too, and he kind of encouraged me to really do something about it. So call certain guys who maybe have struggled, try out different putters. I was pretty stubborn. I wanted to go conventional as conventional can get, so I just started trying different things and became a lot more open minded.”

Talks with a numerous players about their putting styles and how they came to use them were instrumental in Simpson finding something that worked for him. That “open minded” attitude allowed him to take a lesson from Tim Clark a year ago at the 2017 Players and switch to the “claw grip” with a Matt Kuchar style putter-up-the-arm stroke.

He couldn’t go back to belly putting because it was illegal, and he couldn’t go back to that putter either since he broke it in half to stave off temptation.

“My wife is in the driveway pulling out with the kids,” as he tells the story. “And I tell her this, and I see my bag in the garage, and I see the belly putter, and for whatever reason I had an urge to just break it. And so I go over there and snap it over my knee, and I’m on the way to throw it in the trash can, and she tells me I’d better hang on to it, it’s been pretty good to me. So I put it in my trophy case, both pieces.”

Admitting he putted better in THE Players than he ever had, even Johnny Miller noted a “Tom Watson” like decision make and execution process on the greens. After talking it over with Tesori, looking it over, studying and stepping away, Simpson takes a practice stroke and hits it. No standing over it forever.

At this point, Simpson’s relationship with Tesori is well documented. Paul’s history in his hometown, his family’s story, his steadfast faith and faith in Simpson all are part of this feel good story. Webb even calls Tesori “The Mayor.”

“Paul has been just a great friend through all this, a great coworker,” Simpson said in the post match press conference. “(He) is such a great caddie with such a great resume that I never thought once that he would quit and go work for somebody else.

“But through that, I expected him to be frustrated at times, and he never was. He never got frustrated. He stayed positive on my worst days. He would try to give me a pep talk. I think to go through that, you need someone more than a caddie, you need a friend, and he definitely was that for me.”

Add to all that with final Players win on Mother’s Day, just six months after Simpson lost his father. Webb’s dad is the person who introduced him to the game, to a rare disease.

“I thought about him all day,” Simpson said when asked about his dad. “I think it’s been an emotional week for my mom and sisters and my brother. We miss him like crazy, but I really wanted to do this for my mom. She’s been praying for me a lot.”

Hard to get a better “feel good” story than that.

Simpson (with Tesori) In Command At THE PLAYERS

It’s a weird thing to talk to athletes about their top accomplishments. People who are motivated, ambitious and energetic have an easier time remembering their failures than whatever success they had. There’s a specific kind of memory that sits close to the surface, protecting them from ever making the same mistake twice.

On the other hand, there’s also a kind of memory that allows those same athletes to recall every single detail immediately after performing at the highest level. For golfers, it not just the club they hit and the yardage, it’s the blade of grass in front of the ball, the bee that was on the green, the puff of wind they felt in mid-swing and even the smell of, well, whatever they were smelling walking 18 holes.

That was Webb Simpson after the second round of this year’s PLAYERS Championship. And eagle on two and three other birdies on the front had him make the turn in thirty-one. A simple par on 10 seemed unremarkable, but then everything started to go on the hole.

“Obviously when you’re out there competing in a big tournament, you’re as focused as can be,” Simpson said after tying the course record with a 63 on Friday. “But then at a certain point, maybe on 13 today, you start just — like a kid, just kind of laughing. Everything is going in. You feel like no matter what, you’re going to make it,”

Anybody who plays golf knows it comes and goes, even at the highest level. Ben Hogan famously said, “If you think you’ve found it, don’t go to sleep.” One day everything is easy, the next, not so much. For Simpson, the challenge is to stay in the moment.

“I mean, yeah.,” he explained. “That’s the challenge is you’re hitting all your shots exactly where you’re looking, and so the temptation is to start aiming more at the flag. But I didn’t do that. I mean, every — you’ve got to isolate every shot and every putt and just ask yourself, what’s the objective here. Although I’m hitting it great, on 13, I aimed 30 feet right of the hole. 14, I have 9-iron in my hand, I’m aiming 15 feet right of the hole.”

There’s a lot of talk in golf these days by the players about, “us” and “we.” The entire team is part of the success of any player and the caddie is a big, big part of that. Simpson’s caddie is St. Augustine product Paul Tesori. Paul was an accomplished player himself, played at the University of Florida and qualified to play on the PGA Tour. But after not finding enough success as a player, he found a career carrying the bag and consulting with other players. Somehow he worked with Vijay Singh for a while and also caddied for Jerry Kelly and Sean O’Hair. But his success has come with his good friend Webb Simpson. Both men of tremendous faith, their bond goes way beyond player/caddie.

“I think it’s massive,” Webb said Friday. “:You know, to work with somebody every day for eight hours, nine hours a day, and you really like them, and you have a friendship outside of golf, I think it’s pretty special.”

Playing on the PGA Tour is an adjustment for anybody. It’s not just about the golf. The travel, the schedule, the grind, the food, all of it plays a part in a player’s success or lack thereof.

“You know, there’s a lot out here,” Simpson noted. “I get lonely because my family is at home, and there’s ups and downs of the year for performance, and so he knows — as a friend he knows me better than just a coworker, so he knows how to handle me if I’m in those bad places. So he’s been a huge, huge piece in my career.”

“Outside of the majors, this is his favorite tournament,” Webb said of Tesori, normal since he’s from here. “It doesn’t put pressure on me, but it’s always a place you think, like Charlotte for me, it’s a nice place to play well. He’s got so much support out there, more support than I do. It’s been fun the last couple days seeing all the people coming out for Paul.”

If not handled right, it could put a strain on their relationship. In reality, Simpson is the player, Paul is the “guy on the bag.” But in this case, Simpson rolls with it.

“Oh, yeah, I call him the mayor. He can’t get from the putting green to the range without getting stopped a few times. Everybody loves him.”

Easy? Hard? Round 1 Of The Players Was Both

As a two-time champion at The Players, Tiger Woods understands the role the Stadium Course plays as part of the championship.

“When you’re playing well, it seems easy,” Tiger said after playing last week in Charlotte and again after the first round of this year’s Players. “But if you’re a little off, there’s trouble on every shot. You never get comfortable.”

That was evident in the first round of this year’s Players as six players are tied for the lead at six under. Eighty-five players shot even par or better. Yet Phil Mickelson posted a 7 over 79. Jordan Spieth shot 77. That’s how unpredictable things can be at the Players and despite the star power put together by the pairings, the golf course came out as the celebrity.

“If it stays calm in the morning, you’ll see a bunch of guys go low,” Tiger said after an even par 72 in the opening round. “I think tomorrow’s supposed to be the hottest day of the week, and if that’s the case, again, the golf ball is going to be going forever. So this golf course won’t be playing very long.”

With more players tied for the lead than any other year The Players has been contested at the Stadium Course, there were birdies to be made. Webb Simpson made plenty of them and is one of the players on top of the leaderboard.

“Yeah, it’s perfect,” he said of the golf course. “Fairways are perfect, greens are perfect, and if we read these greens right, the ball should go in the hole. It’s fun to play golf courses that are this well-kept.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Dustin Johnson’s finish at six under. Johnson is the top ranked player in the world yet has never had a top ten finish at The Players. Going into the week, Johnson was aware of his lack of success on the Stadium Course but said he had a plan that would work if he stuck to it. “Yeah, I’m definitely surprised, but I think a lot of it has to do with putting,” he explained. “I don’t think I putted very well around here as a whole. I’ve had definitely rounds where I putted well, but for the most part I haven’t, that’s one thing I’ve struggled around here with and obviously today I rolled it nicely.”

There are plenty of up and down swings on the leaderboard with former champions Si Woo Kim, Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia all getting to seven under par at one point. All three fell back, with Sergio’s double-bogey, bogey finish the most dramatic drop. He hit a ball in the water on 17 on his way to a five, and missed an eight-footer on 18 to finish at four under.

“I don’t know that anybody’s overly comfortable here,” said Kuchar who was tied for the first round lead. “I think it’s such a good golf course, such a good test of golf, good shots are rewarded, bad shots are punished. You see a wide variety in scores out here. You see guys shoot 6-under and you see guys shoot 6-, 8-over. It’s just, it’s a great, great test of golf.”

As always, morning players on Thursday will tee of on Friday afternoon and afternoon players on Thursday play Friday morning. It was the morning players who seemed to have the best of the conditions on Thursday.

THE PLAYERS To March: A Good Move

I’ve always said that most of the locals who attend The Players think every PGA Tour event is like that. Of course the Players is like nothing else out there, taking the best from every PGA Tour stop all year and incorporating it into the Stadium Course. It’s not only the best run PGA Tour event, along with The Masters it might be the best run sporting event anywhere as well. It’s a sought after hospitality opportunity for corporations all over the world as well as businesses in Jacksonville and North Florida. It’s a nice blend of both.

Which brings us to current Commissioner Jay Monahan and the move back to March. Monahan said during last year’s Players that they were “considering all options” and they didn’t have any plans to move the tournament “at this time.” Jay doesn’t have a problem with the proximity to the Masters nor the concurrent time frame of the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t need it’s own month on the calendar or separation from the majors to draw attention.

He sees the Players as a stand-alone sporting event and now, in 2017, he’s right. The tournament has it’s own following, it’s own stature and maybe most importantly, it’s a very big deal to the modern day PGA Tour player. Adam Scott was the first champion to say, “This is the tournament I’ve dreamed of winning.” And that was in 2004.

Gone are the days that “Deane’s tournament” was vying for significant status ahead of “Arnold’s tournament” or “Jack’s tournament” on the PGA Tour. Beman’s drive to put the Tour in the club and course building business rankled more than a few of his contemporaries, so they weren’t all fired up about supporting the TPC, as it was originally called. Raymond Floyd made his feelings well known at a famous Players meeting during the tournament in the ’80’s.

From a nuts and bolts standpoint, a move to March will bring the golf course condition and the wind direction back to where the Stadium Course was originally intended by designer Pete Dye. They can make the course as hard and fast as they want.

And it’ll put the Players back in the “Florida Swing” on the golf schedule where it belongs. While much of the country looks to the Masters as the start of spring and the beginning of the golf season, those of us in North Florida know, our games are already rounding into shape during some good weather days in February and March.

It’s the right call and a good fit. Nothing’s ever wrong with being 1st on the schedule.

Players Says “Adapt” To THE PLAYERS In March

Without the old burden of achieving status as the “Fifth Major” gone, you knew it was only a matter of time before The Players moved back to March. Earlier in the year, the PGA of America announced that the PGA Championship will be moving to May with the PGA Tour moving the Players back to it’s March timeframe. Moving the PGA Championship is not unprecedented and although there’s a concern that the early date on the golf calendar might eliminate some traditional northern courses as venues, May opens the door for courses in the Southeast, Florida, Texas and even Southern California.

Moving The Players has been a topic since the tournament was started in the ’70’s. It started in Atlanta on Labor Day in 1974, moved to Ft. Worth the next year in August and then to Ft. Lauderdale the following February. When it moved to Ponte Vedra and Sawgrass Country Club it was played in mid-March before settling on the last week of March in 1983.

Moving to March has gotten different reactions from the players involved. Former champ Phil Mickelson says the course was designed to play in March weather.

“There’s a lot of holes like that where we’ve got to fly it on and stop it,” Phil said on Tuesday. “I think the way it played in March, I kind of preferred over the firm, fast. I don’t think when it was designed, it was designed to be firm, fast the way it has played the last few years.”

Three factors worked against The Players in March in the Tour’s quest to make it the 5th Major. Weather could always be a factor, but as anybody who lives in North Florida knows, we’re as likely to have a week of perfect weather as anything else and much of the memories of the Players in March include perfect weather. There were a couple of Monday finishes, but for the most part, delays in the competition were minor. In it’s quest for a spot on the overall sports calendar as a significant sporting event, the tournament switched from CBS to NBC once CBS made a commitment to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Nobody’s going to forget about March Madness because the Players is happening, and at times that was a sticking point for the decision-makers at the Tour. And finally, the last week of March also happens to be two weeks before the first full week of April and that’s always The Masters.

When contested in March, there wasn’t a tournament that went by without many of the storylines focused on the contestants preparing for Augusta. The Players creator, then-Commissioner Deane Beman, didn’t like any talk about the Masters, wanting his tournament to gain “Major” status as a true “players championship.” Despite his protests, Beman had one eye on what they were doing at Augusta National as he developed The Players. His competitive nature would not allow otherwise.

“This is our championship,” he was fond of saying. Deane had a prickly nature about him when it came to competing with Augusta and the Masters and didn’t like it when the basketball tournament was on television in the hospitality suites, the clubhouse and the media center. When he could control what people were watching, he did. (We couldn’t watch the basketball in the media center more than once.)

A winner two years ago, Rickie Fowler says it’s about adapting.

“Luckily it’s still the same golf course, still the same look, but just make that adjustment as far as wind direction,” he explained. “I mean, I feel like we do that on a day-to-day basis when it comes to a place like the Open Championship overseas.

When he took over as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1994, Tim Finchem had many of the same thoughts about The Players and even more about it’s relationship with Jacksonville. Under Finchem, the Tour tried to separate the tournament once known as the “GJO” from the city entirely, stressing to the assembled media, “the dateline is Ponte Vedra.” There was no reference to it being one of the beaches associated with Jacksonville in any of the promotional material regarding the tournament nor on the national telecast. The dis-association with the city was strongest when Finchem and the Tour decided that The Players should be an international destination for fans and that the local flavor and support of the tournament was holding it back from it’s rightful place in the pantheon of professional golf competition.

They came to their senses a few years ago when Matt Rapp took over as the Executive Director and they refocused on the local community, it’s support, fan base, and the tournament’s reputation as a “must attend” event (and party) in North Florida. Current Players boss Jared Rice seems to have the same charge from new Commissioner Jay Monahan.

Outside of the playing conditions, PGA Champion Justin Thomas said the Players deserves more respect and will probably get it in March.

“Yeah, it’ll be exciting. It’ll be cool just because I think all of us on the TOUR feel that this event can stand on its own,” he said. “It’s not like it’s another event, and it’s no disrespect to the other events, but this is our championship, this is THE PLAYERS Championship. This has a very major-like field, has a very major-like feel, air to it. The roars are very similar. So it’ll be cool to kind of have a major tournament, one a month there, starting in March”

Masters Memories: Sam’s 40 Years At Augusta

Getting an invitation to cover the Masters when I was at Channel 2 in Charleston in late 1978 was an unexpected and welcome surprise. I took my Dad as my cameraman since it was a one-man sports department at the time. We rented a room through the Augusta Housing Bureau and were both amazed the first time we walked on the grounds.

Beautiful and manicured beyond belief “The National” as locals know it, exceeded expectations. The southern hospitality there is no myth: Everybody is unfailingly polite.

I must have looked lost standing outside the Quonset hut that served as the pressroom because PGA Tour media director Tom Place walked out and asked, “Do you need help Sam?” Seeing so many titans of sports journalism in one place was a bit stunning for a young reporter.

After Fuzzy Zoeller’s playoff win, an Augusta National member had him in a cart bringing him up from the 11th green. It was pretty dark but I was standing there by the 18th green with my father holding the camera and the member brought Fuzzy right to me, much to my surprise.

“I don’t see him, I don’t see him,” I could hear my Dad saying behind me. While running a camera in those days was pretty simple, the viewfinder and the camera were separate, connected by a hinge. My Dad was looking straight ahead through the viewfinder but the camera had drooped off the front and was pointing at the ground. As Zoeller walked up to me, I reached back and grabbed the camera and pointed it at the new Masters winner. “There he is,” my Dad said as I told him to hit the “record” button.

I asked Fuzzy a question about winning with his wife expecting their first child and he gave a standard Fuzzy Zoeller answer that included a joke. As I brought the microphone back to my face to ask a second question, out of the darkness what seemed to be a hundred microphones pointed at me in our little circle of light. The most prominent was from a network in Australia. My first thought was “Man, this is a big deal.”

We used to stand in the gravel parking lot under a sign that said “Media” to do our live shots during the Masters. One year we took the satellite truck and Bob Maupin, our engineer, found a dogwood tree down Washington Road in a public park that was pretty accessible. We lit the tree and did a week’s worth of shows there, honestly saying “Live from Augusta.” The media committee once wired a connection for local media from the parking lot to the edge of the ropes surrounding the famous oak tree outside the clubhouse and we went live from there. Greg Norman heckled me from the porch that year and we had a good laugh about it afterwards. Most recently our live broadcasts were from behind the big scoreboard along the first fairway, looking out on the expanse of green that makes up the golf course. Each time we’d pop up from there, Anchorman Tom Wills would say, “It’s just breathtaking.” (I took Tom to Augusta as my cameraman in 1983!)

I’ve created lifelong relationships at Augusta. My friendship with Pat Summerall grew there. I got to know Ken Venturi and Ben Wright. I did some golf with Verne Lundquist in the infancy of cable television and we’ve stayed friends ever since. Every year I’d renew my friendship with Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, (from my days as a bartender in DC) smoking a cigar and having a cocktail with them on the veranda at the back of the clubhouse.

There’s a picture of me in the 1981 Masters yearbook waiting to interview, Tom Watson, that year’s winner. When I see it I’m reminded of the intimacy that Augusta National had then for players, fans and media. There’s always a reverence for the game, the course and the traditions. Smokers won’t even throw their cigarette butts on the ground. I’ve seen patrons put them out and stick them in their pocket.

Even with all of the changes that have happened in the last 40 years, that intimacy remains when you step on the grounds.

People remain unfailingly polite. There’s no running. No cell phones on the property. No selfies or other social media cataloging every second. Just a reunion or a rebirth of sorts every year.

A lot more than just golf when you say the words, “The Masters.”

At The Masters In Augusta, It’s Emotional

Before the traditional Green Jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin at Augusta National, CBS ran a montage of players over the years reacting to a question about winning the Masters. The response was universal, a long exhale with a faraway look in their eyes. It’s enormous from a golf standpoint. A major championship, endorsements and a signature win.

But winning the Masters is much more than that.

When a player wins the U.S. Open, it’s an achievement. Much is made of the qualifying process and the USGA’s protection of “par” on the golf course. You’re the best player in America as the U.S. Open champion. At The Open, they declare you the “Champion Golfer of the Year” and from an international standpoint, no title is more recognized. You beat all-comers. The PGA is an accomplishment, winning among your peers, almost a throwback to the days when not every best player turned pro and played what became the PGA Tour.

At the Masters, it’s emotional.

It’s the only major that’s played on the same golf course every year. In fact, it might be the only significant sporting event that uses the same venue annually. The World Cup travels, so does the Super Bowl. The Daytona 500 is always at Daytona, obviously, but it’s stature and appeal outside of NASCAR fans is limited.

When the Augusta Invitational started in 1934, it was an idea that Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones had to bring together the best players just as the weather began to break in northern Georgia. Writers traveling from baseball spring training in Florida would find it convenient to stop off in Augusta to cover the golf. Editors in the northeast weren’t put off by the stopover, as there was limited extra expense. Horton Smith’s win in ’34 wasn’t overly celebrated. But as is widely know, Roberts and Jones understood that putting on a golf tournament and having people know about your tournament were two different things. Through the reporting of the iconic sportswriters of the time the Augusta Invitational became the Masters. Herbert Warren Wind dubbed the 11th, 12th and 13th at Augusta “Amen Corner” after a blues tune he knew from the ’30’s. Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle gave some mystery and verve to the tournament as eyewitness accounts were reported breathlessly by the major newspapers of the era. Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead playing and winning showed it was important.

But it wasn’t until Arnold Palmer showed up and started winning did it get emotional. That’s how Palmer played and he transferred that emotion to Augusta National and the Masters. Although he won four times, it’s the near misses that are as easily remembered in Palmer’s career at Augusta and the emotion those evoked. As television emerged as a vehicle to bring golf to the masses, TV executives like Frank Chirkinian knew Arnold was telegenic and projected that emotion right through the screen and into our living rooms. (By the way, Chirkinian also invented the “under” or “over” par scoring for television we still use today.) And it didn’t hurt that TV could bring beautiful pictures of a golf course to the millions still saddled by snow and bad weather throughout the country.

As Jack Nicklaus emerged as the best player, the emotions at the Masters still centered on Palmer as the crowd favorite. He brought a visceral connection among the fans at the Masters as he tried to hold off the then unemotional and methodical Golden Bear. Unlike previous golf “rivalries” where you had your favorite and were polite to their competitors, Palmer fans didn’t like Jack and let everybody know. Arnold evoked an emotional response even when he didn’t win.

I say Nicklaus was unemotional, but Jack burned with a competitive fire that centered on winning and beating Palmer. He didn’t show it much, that wasn’t his personality, but being around the two it was obvious they had a deep friendship but also a competitive nature that never abated. Until recently, Jack was the most un-sentimental champion I had ever met. Even when he won his sixth Green Jacket in 1986, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Jack started to embrace the emotion of Augusta National publicly. Tom Watson is kind of the same way. Johnny Miller once said, “Golf champions aren’t chummy,” and maybe he’s right. It’s such an individual game that it breeds and inner strength among the best players.

Sometimes the emotions of nearly winning are equal to those of winning. It’s so demanding as a golf course and as a competition and it is such a big deal that the best players of their era just don’t win at Augusta. Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Tom Kite, David Duval, Ernie Els and others are supposed to be Masters Champions. Their runner-up finishes are legendary. Art Wall, Doug Ford, Gay Brewer, George Archer, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, Larry Mize, Mike Weir, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman and Danny Willet, distinguished players but not household names, even in the golf world, have Green Jackets.

Winning the Masters usually brings an emotional response not seen anywhere else.

Ben Crenshaw cried both times he won. Phil Mickelson’s amazement at winning could only happen on 18 at Augusta. Sergio Garcia dropped his face in his hands after beating Justin Rose last year. That doesn’t happen at a regular tour even or even the other three majors.

It only happens at Augusta.

Tiger Exceeds The Hype, Comes Back To Earth

Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s strange, a celebration or even sad to follow an athlete’s career. In the 40 year’s I’ve been in sports journalism, I’ve experienced just about all of that. From watching Emmitt Smith and Chipper Jones in high school and seeing their careers take them to the Hall of Fame to knowing Brett Myers as a kid, seeing his pitching career take him to the majors as a World Series champion, and now a career as a singer. Even the biggest sports celebrities’ start somewhere, so knowing Tim Tebow, as a high school sophomore is how I remember him best. By the way, may people, including his dad, did think baseball was where he’d make his professional mark.

There’s always a lot of hype about the “best they’ve ever seen” when kids are young players. Marques Dupree, Marquette Smith and Robert Pollard are names that popped up when they were very young. Only two athletes in my career have exceeded the hype: LeBron James and Tiger Woods.

While I’ve seen LeBron play often on TV and occasionally in person while covering the Orlando Magic, I’d say the expectations of what he’d be coming out of high school underestimated not just the player he is but also the determination and will he has as a person.

Starting with his appearance at the LA Open in 1992, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was a name that every sports journalist who covered golf knew. “Tiger” was a unique enough name; the story of how he got it was enough to make any profile pretty colorful. And his dad was omnipresent, telling anybody who would listen how his son was not only going to be the best golfer ever, but, well, here’s his quote: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. … He is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations.” That’s what Earl Woods was saying about his son the golfing prodigy.

In 1994 Tiger played in the US Amateur at the TPC Stadium course as a skinny kid with a big hat and a bigger game. “These one-on-one interviews,” was his answer when I asked the 18 year old if there was anything he didn’t like about how his life was going. I thought I’d get an answer about travel, or weather or something like that. I laughed it off to youthful exuberance, cockiness necessary to be great or whatever. But Woods was serious, and as his career blossomed, he stopped doing any “one on one” interviews outside of the networks and now only makes news on his own website.

There was an incident where Tiger told an off-color joke to a magazine reporter in New York who broke the “off the record” code, printed it, and Tiger felt betrayed. He clammed up after that.

I’ve been critical of Woods’ demeanor throughout his career, I’ve written how he was rude and blew reporters off, was unnecessarily short and curt. Sometimes even mean-spirited. My brother was working for the PGA Tour at the time when Woods was a rookie and a young player and saw Tiger’s public persona develop first-hand. Tiger’s nickname early in his career was “Erkel” after the sitcom character that had few social skills and was generally nerdy. My brother confirmed my thought about Tiger. I didn’t think much of him as a guy. He approached being the most famous person on the planet, something few people know about. But his actions didn’t come close to Ali, Palmer or others in that same situation.

But his play was something completely different.

When he left Stanford, like a lot of professional observers, I thought Tiger was fit into the game at the highest level but would find the competition pretty stiff. That was until I went to Orlando to watch him play at Disney. Wow was I impressed. When somebody hits a golf ball it’s supposed to be at a certain height, at a certain speed at a certain time when you watch it. Tiger’s was higher, faster and better than everybody’s the first time he teed it up. And it only got better.

He was a great athlete who chose golf and reshaped his body to fit the modern game. Instead of a skinny kid, Tiger looked like the middleweight champion and then the light heavyweight of the world. He hit it harder and farther than anybody. And he putted the lights out.

Changing his body and the violence of his swing took a toll on his body and he eventually broke down. His off course issue was well documented and publicized. And his bout with prescription drugs seemed to be the bottom.

I ran into him in early 2017 at a retirement party at his club in Jupiter. I was asked to kind of “save” him from being pestered by everybody there. We spent some time together and for the first time I felt sorry for the guy. He was as awkward as I’d ever seen him. Could barely hold a conversation. Small talk was a chore. Ok, maybe it was me, but I really felt bad for him.

Fast-forward about six months; Tiger’s gone through a rehab after being pulled over for DUI. His body is healing and his golf game is returning. I ran into him at the same club as I was hitting some putts on the practice green.

“Hey Sam, you know Tiger,” my host said as I walked to put away my putter with Woods pulling up in his cart. “Of course,” I said as we shook hands.”

“Jacksonville, right?” Tiger said as he sat back in his cart. I smiled and said, “Yep” anticipating a quick exit as usual.

Instead, the three of us sat there for about 15 minutes talking about everything guys talk about, sharing laughs and jabs, just like it’s supposed to happen.

When he left, I turned to my host and said, “What happened to him? He’s like a different person.”

And that’s the same person we’ve seen in his return to the limelight. He’s agreeable in interviews. He listens to the questions. He tells jokes and smiles. Remember Tiger saying the “second was the first loser” early in his career? Last week walking up 18, Woods smiled and was appreciative of the crowd’s response, despite hitting it OB on 16, bogeying 17 and knowing he wasn’t going to win. That’s a complete turnaround from his former self.

So whatever you attribute it to, being humbled, being a parent, being injured, what ever, I’m hoping Tiger keeps using that same personality. It’s normal, and natural. It’s actually warm.

There’s a steely determination necessary to win in sports at the highest level. Tiger has shown over and over that he has that. I suppose keeping it there, inside the ropes, will take an adjustment. But it’ll be worth it.

Tiger’s Back At Bay Hill

Winning Arnold Palmer’s tournament in March seemed like a rite of spring during Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour heyday. An 8-time champion, Tiger tied Sam Snead for the most wins at any tournament in Tour history. Snead won in Greensboro eight times as well.

But even with that kind of success and familiarity, Tiger spend part of the late morning surveying the Bay Hill course by golf cart before spending some time on the putting green gauging the speed of the greens on Tuesday.

“It should be a fun week,” Woods said anticipating good weather for the tournament starting Thursday. “I used to live here (he moved to Jupiter Island), my kids were born here in Orlando, I know a lot of people here and I’ve won here.”

In Tampa, Tiger’s appearance and surge up the leaderboard through the weekend drove the Valspar Championship to record levels in attendance and television ratings. With Tiger in the field and in contention there were four times the number of people in the gallery and watching on NBC as compared to last year.

Known as the “Tiger effect,” just Woods’ presence creates a buzz around any tournament he plays. Bay Hill is already electric. Masters tickets are a hot item. And although it’s not until May, The Players is anticipating a jump in attendance with Tiger in the field.

“A sellout is tough because we have so much space here,” said The Players Executive Director Jared Rice this week. “But this being the fifth anniversary of Tiger’s last win here and what he’s done for golf and the kind player he is, you can’t help but be excited at the possibility he’ll be back.”

On the PGA Tour players don’t have to commit to a tournament until the Friday before, and that’s typically been Tiger’s routine. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be at The Players.

“Hanging around on the range just isn’t possible anymore,” Woods said of his practice routine. “I get my work done and get out of there. Lingering for three or four hours I just don’t do. Some of that is just being an older athlete.”

Part of the misconception of his injury was that he couldn’t swing a club. Woods said that wasn’t it at all. It was more about bending over to hold the putter or a wedge that caused his back the most pain.

“I’ve finally at a point where I can let my hands tell me what to do. My back is healthy enough to trust it and let my hands play,” Tiger explained. “I’ve gone back to a lot of the things I did with my Dad.”

Finishing one shot back last week in Tampa, Woods said he could tell he’s getting sharper in competition, able to hit shots he sees in his mind. A fade or a draw, his “stinger” or a bombing driver, Tiger knows he’ll need all of those shots to win on the Tour with today’s level of competition.

“Paul (Casey, the winner) just laid it to us,” Tiger said of being in the mix on Sunday. “I knew I’d have to play well because these young guys can play. They’ve done well and it’s no surprise.”

You could tell that playing at Bay Hill, Arnold’s tournament is special to Tiger and he’ll miss seeing him on the golf course. He talked about the times he’d played here with Palmer as a kid and as a professional in “The Shootout” 9 (the daily noon game at Bay Hill) and the times they shared on the green when he won and in the locker room afterwards.

“I can’t make that thing he did with hitching his pants on the side look cool,” Woods said when asked if he’s tried to emulate Palmer in any way.

In a bit of a surprise, Woods was named the American captain of the 2019 Presidents Cup team. He’s been an assistant on both the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup but still only 42 years old; Woods expects to be a “playing captain” and not having to use one of his at-large picks to put himself on the team.

“Have you thought about being a ‘playing captain?” was the first question of the presser.

“I have,” Woods said immediately with a smile to raucous laughter among the media.

Jeff Klauk Back On The Course

It was cool and dreary. A light rain fell all morning during the annual charity shootout during Media Day at The Players.

And none of that mattered to former PGA Tour player and North Florida resident Jeff Klauk. He was back on the golf course, thinking about yardages, the wind and the shot he needed to hit under pressure.

“Normally that would be a nice, smooth, easy wedge but the wind picked up and the cool temperatures with the rain, that was 125 yards,” he explained after winning the shootout, hitting it to one foot. “It was just as soft a 9-iron as I can hit because I didn’t want to hit it a hard wedge. So, that turned out to be the best shot in a long time.”

Success on the golf course is familiar to Klauk. At this point, just being on the golf course is a win. Klauk’s golf career was derailed by epilepsy six years ago. He’s undergone several lengthy procedures, most recently a potential “fix” at Emory in Atlanta.

“It went well,” he explained. “I’m still in the process of healing up and getting used to things. I am getting used to the word time. I have heard that word an awful lot, time of healing, so I am just trying to be as patient as I can.”

It’s the third time he’s won the shootout, but his time on the course has been severely curtailed.

“I haven’t played much golf to say the least,” he said after accepting a check for $10,000 for his charity, Athletes vs. Epilepsy. “I have hit a few shots with my son and that’s really about it. So it is good to be back out here at the course.”

“Especially today being out here with people watching, hitting shots with everybody around, having my parents here and everything. That’s what you feel in tournaments, feeling a little bit of pressure representing your charity and showing people you can still hit some good shots. It was great, a lot of fun.”

His golf tournament raises money for epilepsy research and is coming up next month.

“April 9th, the Monday after The Masters is my tournament at Palencia,” Jeff explained. “I need people to come out and play so they can go register at athletesvsepilepsygolf.com. I would love to get everybody out there, it will be a lot of fun and we will have a good time.”

And as a competitor who’s been on the course and in the field with Tiger Woods, Klauk is as impressed as anybody with what Tiger has been able to do in his latest comeback.

“It is impressive. He is going to do it (win) soon. Obviously his short game is back, that’s the most impressive, and that putting, making all of those up and downs. I know he was saying he was between yardages yesterday but he will get those wedges dialed in. I wouldn’t be surprised if he shocks everybody at the Masters.”

The PLAYERS In March Is The Right Fit

Without the old burden of achieving status as the “Fifth Major” you knew it was only a matter of time before The Players moved back to March. Tuesday the PGA of America will announce that the PGA Championship will be moving to May with the PGA Tour moving the Players back to it’s March timeframe. Moving the PGA Championship is not unprecedented and although there’s a concern that the early date on the golf calendar might eliminate some traditional northern courses as venues, May opens the door for courses in the Southeast, Florida, Texas and even Southern California.

Moving The Players has been a topic since the tournament was started in the ’70’s. It started in Atlanta on Labor Day in 1974, moved to Ft. Worth the next year in August and then to Ft. Lauderdale the following February. When it moved to Ponte Vedra and Sawgrass Country Club it was played in mid-March before settling on the last week of March in 1983.

Three factors worked against The Players in March in the Tour’s quest to make it the 5th Major. Weather could always be a factor, but as anybody who lives in North Florida knows, we’re as likely to have a week of perfect weather as anything else and much of the memories of the Players in March include perfect weather. There were a couple of Monday finishes, but for the most part, delays in the competition were minor. In it’s quest for a spot on the overall sports calendar as a significant sporting event, the tournament switched from CBS to NBC once CBS made a commitment to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Nobody’s going to forget about March Madness because the Players is happening, and at times that was a sticking point for the decision-makers at the Tour. And finally, the last week of March also happens to be two weeks before the first full week of April and that’s always The Masters.

When contested in March, there wasn’t a tournament that went by without many of the storylines focused on the contestants preparing for Augusta. The Players creator, then-Commissioner Deane Beman, didn’t like any talk about the Masters, wanting his tournament to gain “Major” status as a true “players championship.” Despite his protests, Beman had one eye on what they were doing at Augusta National as he developed the players. His competitive nature would allow otherwise.

“This is our championship,” he was fond of saying. Deane had a prickly nature about him when it came to competing with Augusta and the Masters and didn’t like it when the basketball tournament was on television in the hospitality suites, the clubhouse and the media center. When he could control what people were watching, he did. (We couldn’t watch the basketball in the media center more than once.)

When he took over as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1994, Tim Finchem had many of the same thoughts about The Players and even more about it’s relationship with Jacksonville. Under Finchem, the Tour tried to separate the tournament once known as the “GJO” from the city entirely, stressing to the assembled media, “the dateline is Ponte Vedra.” There was no reference to it being one of the beaches associated with Jacksonville in any of the promotional material regarding the tournament nor on the national telecast. The dis-association with the city was strongest when Finchem and the Tour decided that The Players should be an international destination for fans and that the local flavor and support of the tournament was holding it back from it’s rightful place in the pantheon of professional golf competition.

They came to their senses a few years ago when Matt Rapp took over as the Executive Director and they refocused on the local community, it’s support, fan base, and the tournament’s reputation as a “must attend” event (and party) in North Florida.

I’ve always said that most of the locals who attend The Players think every PGA Tour event is like that. Of course the Players is like nothing else out there, taking the best from every PGA Tour stop all year and incorporating it into the Stadium Course. It’s not only the best run PGA Tour event, it might be the best run sporting event anywhere as well. It’s a sought after hospitality opportunity for corporations all over the world as well as businesses in Jacksonville and North Florida. It’s a nice blend of both.

Which brings us to the current Commissioner Jay Monahan and the move back to March. Monahan said during this year’s Players that they were “considering all options” and they didn’t have any plans to move the tournament “at this time.” Jay doesn’t have a problem with the proximity to the Masters nor the concurrent time frame of the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t need it’s own month on the calendar or separation from the majors to draw attention. He sees the Players as a stand-alone sporting event and now, in 2017, he’s right. The tournament has it’s own following, it’s own stature and maybe most importantly, it’s a very big deal to the modern day PGA Tour player. Adam Scott was the first champion to say, “This is the tournament I’ve dreamed of winning.” And that was in 2004.

Gone are the days that “Deane’s tournament” was vying for significant status ahead of “Arnold’s tournament” or “Jack’s tournament” on the PGA Tour. Beman’s drive to put the Tour in the club and course building business rankled more than a few of his contemporaries, so they weren’t all fired up about supporting the TPC, as it was originally called.

From a nuts and bolts standpoint, a move to March will bring the golf course condition and the wind direction back to where the Stadium Course was originally intended by designer Pete Dye. They can make the course as hard and fast as they want.

And it’ll put the Players back in the “Florida Swing” on the golf schedule where it belongs. While much of the country looks to the Masters as the start of spring and the beginning of the golf season, those of us in North Florida know, our games are already rounding into shape during some good weather days in February and March.

It’s the right call and a good fit. Nothing ever wrong with being 1st on the schedule.

TPC Performance Center Will Make You Better

Gone are the days of hitting iron after iron, driver after driver to find the one that “feels” right. Technology has changed all of that. Measuring every aspect of your golf swing and the result is an every day occurrence in today’s game. The new TPC Performance Center at Sawgrass is tying all aspects of the game together in one place and giving players a chance to be the best player they can be. It’s a big step from an hour on the range hitting 20 different drivers.

“Nothing’s more of a step than this,” said Todd Anderson, the Performance Center Director. If his name is familiar, Anderson comes to the TPC from Sea Island where he was in charge of their performance set up and happened to tutor two of the last four FedEx Cup winners. His track record speaks for itself.

“We have everything you need to improve as a player. The practice area, the balls, the targets, all of it is top of the line. Then you come into our building and see the technology to really quantify the different parts of somebody’s game. Nobody will be ahead of us.”

While the game is looking for growth and keeping players interested, it’s always been focused on the score. How do I lower my score? Can I get my handicap lower? Anderson says that’s their focus as well.

“The key is can we change the number,” he explained. “Here are the things you need to do to get there. We’re trying to find a way to assess people’s games when they come in. How can we take all this information and put together a package to help you improve as a specific player.”

At the TPC Performance Center they have three instruction bays with full video and display screens. That have a top-100 club fitter on staff with what seems to be every combination of shaft and head for irons and metal -woods possible. A state of the art video/computer-putting lab dissects your stroke and shows you how to improve. And while everybody can’t be the athlete Dustin Johnson is as the #1 player in the world, the Performance Center has a full gym with a golf-specific athletic trainer who can test your movement and prescribe a fitness routine to help you be a better player.

“When you see the top players getting better, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t also improve,” Anderson said. “Not everybody has a full time job playing golf. So that’s the goal: to “dumb it down” to the average guy who’s playing golf. Take that information, that plan. Figure out how much time and energy you want to put into it so you can play better. That’s the goal.”

There have been several steps in this direction from club manufacturers. Taylor Made had “The Kingdom” in Carlsbad, CA and a smaller version in other locations. (Including TPC Sawgrass) and Nike had “The Oven” in Dallas where they could “cook” Tour player’s games to perfection. Nike’s out of the club business and Taylor Made is for sale. But the TPC Performance Center takes all the best aspects of what they did in those places and what Anderson was doing at Sea Island and puts it in one spot.

“Being able to take the different aspects of improving your game; fitness, club fitting, instruction, it’s come a long way,” Todd said with a smile. “You can now quantify improvement. It used to be just with your score. Now, I can tell you longer, straighter, club head speed, all of that. It’s the same thing with fitness. Use the technology to help you as a student to show you how you’re improving and where you need more work.”

If you’re into being the best player you can be, you’re behind the curve if you haven’t optimized your equipment and taken a good look at your game. But it comes at a cost.

A full game assessment at the Performance Center is $199 (for now) a pretty good value for about three hours of looking at your golf game. You’ll leave there with information on how to get better. A club fitting through your bag is $375 and is also about 3 hours. When you leave there, you’ll know what equipment fits your game in its current state.

If you have an unlimited golf budget, you’ll spend hours and hours there honing your game and your new equipment and no doubt, you’ll leave a better player. If you have any kind of budget, the assessment is a good starting point to figure out how much more you want to spend to lower your scores.

Players Is Big And Getting Bigger

If you made it out to The Players this year, you saw a lot of changes to the golf course and even the traffic flow for the tournament. It was a big undertaking from almost every perspective. Fans were getting a new experience and the players needed to adjust to a revamped golf course.

“A renovation and a change to the infrastructure of this magnitude hasn’t been done since the course was originally constructed,” The Players Executive Director Jared Rice said this week. “So, to see how fans behaved and moved around the golf course was really helpful to see what adjustments we need to make, primarily infrastructure, getting in and out easier, moving around the golf course easy, making sure that we have amenities like food and beverage placed in the right places.”

As a golf tournament, The Players remains somewhere between the four majors and the week-to-week competition on the PGA Tour. But as a sporting event, it nearly has no peer. From the traffic flow to the food and drink available, The Players is organized, efficient and fun. While the bulk of the spectators are locals, the Tour has tried to market the event nationally and internationally, making it a destination event. It’s not a Major; it might never be a Major. But it’s a combination of every best thing offered at PGA Tour events every week. It’s not like a regular tour stop.

“Think about 28 million viewers nationally watched this telecast,” Rice explained. “When fans and viewers see a really active and engaged and energized community, that delivers a feeling of ‘what a great property, I want to go to that tournament’ and really presents our community in a really positive light.”

Although the competitors in the field said the new 12th hole needed to be “tweaked” at the least, Rice said his feedback was that the fans liked the “drivable par four” aspect of the hole and the gathering places around the new design.

“I think 12 was really, really appreciated by our fans,” he said. “From the local restaurants we have around the golf course, Taco Lu being right there on 12, the shaded bleachers delivered a great vantage point of the 12th hole and the 13th green. It was as good as advertised and it will only get better in the future.”

From a sheer numbers standpoint, the 2017 tournament produced some eye-popping statistics. More than 35,000 complimentary military tickets were issued. The Patriots Outpost had 19,000 military visitors and their dependents over the week. There were nineteen regional restaurants featured on the course. Over 100,000 bottles of water were sold during the six days of the tournament. The hot dogs sold laid end to end would stretch out two miles long.

A total of 943 media credentials were issued for the tournament to 202 media outlets representing 17 countries. The Players was broadcast in 24 different languages to a potential audience of a billion viewers.

Would any of that change if they moved The Players back to March? There’s an argument to be made for both sides. The current May date gives it a “vacation” feel for fans and a summer tournament feel for the competitors. March signals the start of spring here in North Florida and it seemed a little higher control of your game “through your bag” was necessary to come away with a victory.

Either way, the tournament will continue to grow in size and stature as the current crop of competitors put an emphasis on winning at the Stadium Course.

“When you look at the national nature of who may come into our community and host or vacation in a March date, when you may have a lot of snow in the rest of the country, it is a very positive thing.,” Rice said about a potential change. “And then May, the weather has been fantastic, almost idyllic the past couple of years. There’s a lot of positives to May too, so it is a nice problem to have and one thing we know is whenever it is played, it will be the best fan experience in golf.”

Sunday Stroll For Si Woo Kim

With the lowest round of the week in the 2017 Players a 66, and the best in the final round a 68, the thought that, “You don’t have to do much around here” to be in contention was as clear as ever. The changes in the golf course, the firmness of the greens and exacting nature of every hole kept anybody from going very low.

Over the weekend, Si Woo Kim made one bogey and none in the final round enroute to a 69 and a -10 winning score. Kim is the youngest player to ever win The Players and the second South Korean, joining his mentor K.J. Choi as a champion.

“K.J. has become a really good model, so because he had won before I have I am kind of confident that a Korean can win one of these tournaments and that actually helps me when I’m playing,” Kim said through an interpreter. “While I was practicing with him, he taught me about the course at the Stadium, and so when I was in position the last round, before he actually explained about his experience of being in the leading position, so that kind of advice actually helped me a lot.”

Most of his competitors at The Players were impressed with Kim’s calm demeanor. They knew he could play, but being able to play bogey-free on Sunday at The Players is something special.

“I just focused on myself and I didn’t try to think about others scores. I think that really helped me to be stable.”

And it wasn’t by accident. Kim learned the “focus on winning” mindset early in his golf career. “While I was a junior player, I’ve learned that when you focus on the second place, you don’t do your play well,” he explained. “So I learned that experience, so I was just trying to focus on my play, so I was kind of feeling better just focusing on myself, and I played very aggressive today to get more points ahead of him, so I think that really helped me.”

It was almost as if Kim was ignoring the situation and what was going on around him in order to focus on his own game. He wouldn’t get rattled.

“He’s gone clean out there today, which is extremely impressive under that pressure,” runner-up Ian Poulter said. “I kind of got close there on 11 once I made birdie, and obviously I wanted to try and put a little bit more pressure on, but it was tough to get it close. You have to take your hat off. You have to respect some good golf, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

A first-hand look of Kim’s final round is just what Louis Oosthuizen got on Sunday. And he wasn’t surprised that Kim held onto the lead down the stretch.

“Well it’s just the way this golf course is,” he said after posted 73 in the final round. “He didn’t really have to do a lot at the end there, just needed to stay in play and make pars. You can get ahead a few shots and the way the weather was today, the way it was so windy, it’s tough to make bogeys at the end there. If it’s perfect weather like yesterday afternoon, yes, you can go, 2, 3-under the last three, four holes, but it was tough today.”

Not only did Kim not make a bogey in the final round, he also lead the field in scrambling, getting it up and down from everywhere. Oosthuizen said that’s the key on the Stadium Course but what Kim did on Sunday was nonetheless impressive.

“If you can do that around this golf course, I mean you can out score everyone,” he explained. “And he played like someone that was doing it for five or six years like it was just another round of golf. It just shows you how good a player he is and how cool and calm he is and never once did he look flustered at all.”

Still Anybody’s Tournament

When you start looking at the leaderboard after the second round of The Players, there are a lot of familiar names but none jump out as current superstars in the game. Get down around even par and you find the top players in the world: Number one Dustin Johnson at even par, #2 Rory McIlroy also at even, #3 Jason Day at -2 and #4 Hideki Matsuyama at one under. I’ve always thought that The Players should adopt the rule to allow anybody who is within 10 shots of the lead to make the cut. The golf course lends itself to being able to make up 10 shots over two rounds. In 2017 players within eleven shots of the leader will play on the weekend. The cut was at two over par.

“I thought that the course was a little more gettable than that,” world number two McIlroy said after posting a one under 71 in the second round. “But it just shows, it’s Sawgrass, it’s tricky, you got to hit some really quality shots to get the ball close and give yourself opportunities for birdies. I shot under par at the end of the day and I’m in for the weekend, which was the main objective going out this morning.”

Playing with the number one player in the world and former champ Matt Kuchar, Rory found it interesting that after 36 holes, all three of them posted even par.

“You wouldn’t have thought looking at the three of us today and yesterday that we’d all finish on even par. We all sort of did it in a different way.. I thought the course was — it felt gettable, but looking at the scores, no one went super low. I wish I could have been closer to the lead, but the guys haven’t went that low, so tomorrow morning maybe shoot us a low one and get myself back in the tournament.”

After a second round one-over par 73, Johnson didn’t like anything about his game but was still playing on the weekend.

“Yeah, I can’t blame anything on anyone but myself,” he said. “The golf course, it wasn’t — it’s playing difficult, but if you hit good shots you can shoot a good score. Good scores are out there, I just didn’t play well enough to shoot a good score.”

Last week in Wilmington, Johnson made the cut on the number and was in contention to win on Sunday after a low Saturday round. He hopes the same think happens this weekend. “I’ll probably be teeing off pretty early and go out and post a good number and get myself back in the golf tournament,” he explained. “If the lead’s around 6- or 7-under,(it’s 9 under) that’s still within reach, absolutely.”

As the defending champ, Day also tied the course record last year at 63 so he’s not afraid to shoot a low number. He’s at -2, seven behind the leader but believes a low number on Saturday would put him in contention.

“Yeah, you don’t really need too much around here.. It’s difficult to try and close around here, but I need a good one tomorrow.

I asked Jason if they can set the golf course up so somebody could go out there and shoot a low number tomorrow.

“I hope so,” he deadpanned to much laughter by the assembled media.

“That would be nice,” he continued. “It’s just that some of the changes — you take 15 for instance, that’s, they lengthened that by 20 yards and usually I would be hitting a 2-iron there with a wedge. Now I’m hitting driver and 9-irons in there. So they definitely made the golf course a lot tougher. I think there’s opportunity over the next two days to really kind of catch up to hopefully to the lead.”

Also at two under par, Phil Mickelson thinks a low number will be shot on Saturday morning.

“I think the guy that is going to be leading tomorrow is going to be somebody that’s at like even, 1-under par right now that goes out early and has a chance to shoot a low round,” he said. “Because as the day wears on, the course firms up, dries out and it gets a lot more difficult.”

Any round in the 60’s would be fine for him tomorrow said the 2007 champ. So he thinks a good round puts him in the thick of it.

“Yeah, I think anybody that made the cut has a really good shot,” he explained. “But especially if you’re even, 1-under, I think those guys go out a little early and I think they could shoot 6-, 7-under par and get right back in it. I know there was probably a couple of those today, but I don’t see many of those out there.”

After a stellar 2016, 2004 champ Adam Scott has struggled since the first of the year. But despite back-to-back double bogeys yesterday on 17 and 18, he’s still within striking distance at two under par. He said he hit a couple of loose shots and that always costs you at the Stadium Course.

“But you know, I’m going to have to sharpen that up for the weekend,” he said after his round. “The rhythm of the swing wasn’t quite there today like it was yesterday, so if I can just go out and find that for tomorrow, I like where I’m at.

Scott agreed that the golf course doesn’t appear to be as difficult as it’s playing. And the scores reflect that.

“I’m not quite sure why the scoring isn’t better. It just must be tricky out there. You know, everyone trying to come to terms with a few little changes here and there. The greens certainly aren’t fast. They’re firm, and maybe it was a tough set of pins today. I don’t know, it was just tough to get it close. You know, this course you have to ball strike it to death to kind of limit the mistakes, and if you hit one off line, it’s hard work getting it back on track.”

Without much focus, Masters Champion Sergio Garcia kept himself in the tournament with an ace on 17 yesterday and got to even par with a 71 on Friday including a birdie on eighteen. He admits it’s been tough to come back after his win at Augusta and compete in the Players as his first time back.

“Definitely, I’m not going to lie, it has been difficult. But even like that, I felt like I fought hard the last two days after a terrible start, and it’s a shame because today without playing amazing, I felt like I could have shot 3-, 4-under par and that would have been really, really good. Unfortunately, I let a couple slip away there towards the end, but I played well the last two holes with the pressure of making sure that I didn’t do anything stupid so I could be here on the weekend, and hopefully I can free up a little bit on the weekend and have a solid two days.”

As a pure ball striker, it’s no surprise Garcia has the best record here among players who have been in the tournament since he won in 2008. But his mental state, as he admits, has been off since he teed it up yesterday.

“It has been overwhelming, I’m not going to lie. I haven’t won a Major and I haven’t won the Masters before, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect and what to feel. I’ve hit some really good shots but I hit some shots that I wasn’t hitting lately, so I need to kind of tighten that up a little bit.”

Malik Jackson At The Players: “It’s Pretty Dope”

He’d be hard to miss in any situation. But Jaguars defensive lineman Malik Jackson at 6’6″ and 290 lbs. was wearing a bright burnt, Tennessee orange shirt on Thursday watching golf in the first round of The Players.

“It’s just to see all of my Tennessee brothers and sisters,” he said with a laugh and a wink when asked what the actual intent of wearing Volunteer colors might be. “I want us to come out of hiding in this Florida, Florida State place. Because we (Vols) thrive here.”

Always affable and available in the Jaguars locker room, Jackson was clearly relaxed and enjoying himself in a different environment.

“I’m terrible at golf,” he said after coming into the Jaguars Den (chalet) from watching golf at the 17th hole. “You know when I first got here we had a little golf outing with Sen’Derrick (Marks) and Roy (Miller) as a D-Line and it was fun but not for me. I’d rather be home playing golf on video games.”

Still, Jackson has a special appreciation for what the best players in the world can do on a golf course.

“Kind of like when Pop Warner watches us,” he chuckled. ” It’s cool to see these guys do their thing, kind of like when they come to a football game and watch us. I have no clue what they do and how they do it. It’s cool to see another pro do his thing.”

Growing up in California, Jackson started his college career at Southern Cal, then to Tennessee. He played in Denver before signing as a free agent with the Jaguars. After being here a year, his still discovering what North Florida has to offer, year ’round. And he likes it.

“I didn’t know TPC was here,” he explained. “Jacksonville has a lot to offer with things like this and music festivals. It’s pretty dope to experience this,(and) the biggest outdoor cocktail party. It’s fun to be around. It’s opening my eyes to what Jacksonville has to offer.

Winning Score? TPC Stadium Is Firm And Fast

If they wanted to, they could make it impossible. The Stadium Course in 2017 is going to be firm and fast, thanks to a lack of rain in Ponte Vedra in the last month.

“We’ve been able to control it this year,” said Jeff Plotts, the Stadium Course’s Director of Agronomy. “We haven’t had rain here in a while so we’ve been able to make it just right.”

It’s quirky, that’s for sure. Locals say often “you’ve been TPC’d” when a shot is a foot or two off line and trundles into an impossible spot.

“You can’t fake it around here,” Rickie Fowler said this week. “If you’re not on, it’ll expose you.”

So with the lack of rain, the firm greens, the quirkiness and the ability to hide the flagstick in obscure and tight places, they could make it impossible. But they won’t because it’s The Players Championship and the players want to make birdies and that’s what fans want to see.

With benig weather expected, the best players in the world will figure out to shoot a low score. But how the golf course is set up will determine how low the winner can go.

It seemed everybody at the PGA Tour was upset when Greg Norman shot -24 in 1994 and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. They failed to mention that only Fuzzy Zoeller and Jeff Maggert that year approached Norman’s record score with the rest of the field near single digits. Since then, Davis Love in 2003 (-17) and Tim Clarke in 2010 (-16) have gone low.

But something in double-digits under par usually wins The Players. In four straight years, 2011-2014, the winning score was -13. Rickie Fowler shot -12 (So did Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia that year to get into a playoff). Last year Jason Day won at -15.

Since the tournament moved to May in 2007, Garcia’s -5 in 2008 (also in a playoff with Paul Goydos) is the highest winning score. In March, David Duval’s victory came at -3.

So what wins this year?

The way the golf course is set up, somebody will play great and post a low number in one round. But over 72 holes, the Stadium Course will offer enough resistance to keep only the best and most patient players of the week at the top of the leaderboard.

It’s why I like Sergio, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy this week. The first to -10 wins.

Sergio: Everybody’s New Favorite

It’s funny how perceptions change. Think George Foreman. Big, hulking, brooding, tough guy that nobody rooted for as the heavyweight champion. After losing to Ali in the ‘rope-a-dope’ fight, the public started to take to Foreman and through the years he’s become the big loveable guy who sells grills.

For a long time in his career, Sergio Garcia was the villain, certainly not the favorite in any situation and especially not in the US. He started as Tiger Woods’ rival as a 19-year old teenager. He became the “Best player to have not won a major” for a long time. Then he was the petulant, self-pitying, talented player who never achieved his potential. The bottom of his image came when he said, “I’m not good enough. I have to accept that I’m just playing for second or third.” He was openly heckled in the playoff at The Players in 2015.

In his 20-years on the PGA Tour, Garcia certainly appears to have matured, and the perception of him has come from fans and media who weren’t part of his inner circle. He became the favorite on the back nine at the Masters this year and the outpouring of support since winning his first major surprised him. Because, in his mind, Garcia hasn’t changed at all.

“I think I’ve been saying it, and I always say it, that I’m still the same person. I told you, I always try to be true to myself,” Garcia said on Wednesday at The Players. “I try to be as genuine as I can be and as honest as possible. I think that at the end of the day that people see that, and now they’re even happier because, yeah, we won at Augusta. But I think at the end of the day, the most important thing is to not change. You are who you are, and one major or 20 majors shouldn’t change you.”

No question Garcia had doubts. His public comments reflect that. But perhaps what he didn’t know was how many of his peers were on his side. That has surprised him since winning the Masters in April.

“Yeah, it’s been amazing. I think that — there’s so many great things that have happened since Sunday at Augusta,” he explained. “You know, the support from fans and supporters and everyone around the world has been amazing. But for me, what has meant the most, it’s to see the reaction from the players, you know, towards me and how happy — other than a couple, how happy they all have been (laughing). It shows me how much my fellow players respect me and care about me. It’s something that you can’t really fake, so that’s awesome.”

In the four weeks since his win in Augusta, Garcia hasn’t played any competitive golf but he’s been busy. He attended Rory McElroy’s wedding, he tapped the ceremonial opening kick in Spain at El Classico and he spent a couple of weeks at his place in Switzerland. So to come back for his first tournament at The Players would seem like a challenge. But his track record at the Stadium Course is stellar and even with the one win in 2008; he’s been in contention enough to have won a few more.

“I like the golf course,” he said. “I feel like I’m still swinging the club well. I feel confident out there. I’ve just got to keep doing more and more of that, and at the end of the day, it’s the same thing we did four weeks ago, so it shouldn’t change too much.”

“Is it ideal to come back and be the first tournament this one? Hopefully. Hopefully we’ll be able to say that on Sunday.”

Since he hasn’t played on Tour since the Masters, when he tees it up on the first tee on Thursday it’ll be the first time he’s been introduced as the “Masters Champion,” part of the ceremonial nature announcing the players each week. Even he admitted that will be special.

“I’d love to tell you what it’s going to feel like,” he said, “But I’m not going to know until Thursday, but I’m excited about it. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m sure a lot of things will go through my mind about that week and stuff, but it’s a great thing to have.”

And true to his thought that he’s the same person, Garcia said he’s still trying to win.

“At the end of the day, to stay hungry, the other thing you have to do is just keep working hard,” he added. “I know that I can still improve, so that’s my goal. I’ve always said it, my goal is always to become better, so it doesn’t matter — like I said, I could have a year where I don’t win and I feel really, really good about what I’ve done because I feel like I’ve become better, and then some of the years where obviously maybe you get three or four wins and they’re even better, but it doesn’t mean that — it’s not only about winning.” When asked who the “Best Player to Not Win a Major” is now, Garcia paused and with a laugh said, “Not me!”

THE PLAYERS In May Or March Is Still Huge

As administrations have changed at the PGA Tour over the last 40 years, the focus of The Players has changed as well. The tournament founder and then-Commissioner Deane Beman wanted it to be the first significant tournament of the year. And in truth, wanted it to become the fifth major. Beman was visionary when it came to what The Players could be, but in some cases was a lone voice, albeit an important voice for what he always called “Our Championship.” Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus both had tournaments in Florida and Ohio and also wanted their tournaments to be something more than just another tour spot. Nicklaus had visions of Augusta at Murifield Village outside of Columbus. Both he and Palmer considered Beman a rival when it came to building golf courses, they didn’t think the PGA Tour should be in that business, so neither were big proponents of The Players in the early years.

Nobody at the Tour was ever happy when a lot of the talk during this week was about The Masters. Falling just two weeks before the first “major” many players of the era talked about using The Players as a run-up to Augusta.

So over time, and a new commissioner in Tim Finchem, the Tour did everything they could to make The Players the best on every level they could: Biggest prize money, best practice facility, magnificent clubhouse and on and on. But even as the tournament grew in stature and became a tournament that players wanted to win, (Adam Scott in 2004 was the first to say “I grew up dreaming of winning this tournament”) it still lived in the shadow of The Masters.

In 2007, after years of studying the weather and agronomy, The Players moved to May, four weeks after the Masters and a month before the US Open. While the tournament stands alone and is now a significant international sporting event. There is a sentiment among the PGA Tour staff, under new commissioner Jay Monahan and among current PGA Tour players that the tournament should move back to March. Former champion David Duval is a big proponent of the move, saying “the golf course plays in March the way it was designed.” Johnny Miller echoed his thought noting that, “in March, you occasionally get a north wind which makes 17 and 18 play very differently. In May, it’s just a flip wedge for these guys.”

Current players say it’s big enough to stand on it’s own, not as a run up to Augusta. The golf course would be more predictable, as in hard, and it would do two things to the schedule: reinstate the ‘Florida Swing” with three tournaments in the state leading up to The Players and if as the PGA of America has talked about, the PGA Championship moves to May, it would have five big tournaments, one a month, starting in March. Plus the FedEx playoffs (they signed a new 10-year sponsorship extension today) would end around Labor Day, keeping the “Championship” from competing with college football and the NFL.

Predictably, Monahan had a very political answer to the question of moving the tournament when asked on Tuesday.

“Well, it’s in May, and right now we don’t have any plans on moving it back to March,” he said flatly. “That’s certainly been part of the consideration set. But until we make a decision or at the point in time we make a decision to make any change, I would be happy to answer that question and answer that question directly, but right now we’re focused on making THE PLAYERS the best it can possibly be in May.”

Stars in the golf world don’t seem to feel strongly one way or another. Former world #1 Rory McIlroy understands the argument but thinks it’s a long way off.

“I can definitely see why it would move back to March,” he said. “I can definitely see the reasons for it. And, yeah, if it did go that way, it would obviously take a few different courses off the PGA rota, the places up north that wouldn’t quite be ready. But I can definitely see why it would happen, but I think there’s a lot of things to cover until we get to that point.”

As the defending champion, World #3 and former #1 Jason Day considers the playability of the golf course and how it would change how it’s played.

“Yeah. Firstly, there’s a lot of history behind this golf course with regards to the champions that have played here,” he explained. “I think it’s very, very difficult golf course. Once again, we do have a little bit of weather here every now and then, but for the most part it’s a very difficult golf course at this time, especially with the Bermudagrass and with the current position of them actually thinking about changing the date, that will change the way the grass plays and everything else, so that may change the way that I view the golf course.”

Perhaps the new commissioner gave us some clues into what he’s thinking and whether the tournament is just fine where it is.

“it’s our showcase of excellence,” he explained. “We continue to do everything we can to enhance every facet of this event. And we do that so that you all and our fans can talk about its significance. All we can do is control everything that we have here on property, and we’re very proud of how this event evolves.”

As far as where The Players is in the pantheon of “significant tournaments and whether it’ll ever be considered a “Major,” Monahan admitted that’s not up to him.

“I think this championship’s in a great place,” he added. “And I think if that’s where — if that’s how it’s described and it is being described as that by some today, whether it’s the media or players, that’s something we’re very comfortable with because we think that description is befitting of the work that’s been done over 40 plus years to build this championship.”

“And it’s the PLAYERS Championship,” he continued. “They come here, it’s their tournament and it’s unique and different and they’re obviously playing the same course year in and year out. This course is phenomenal in terms of the way it’s democratic and it really defines the best playing, the best player at that point in time, and hence the great list of champions we have.”

GJO To The Players Is A Long Trip

From John Tucker, Dick Stratton and a few others sitting at Silver’s Drug Store in Jax Beach talking about holding a golf tournament to the present day, the old GJO (Greater Jacksonville Open) has morphed into one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

It didn’t take long for the new Executive Director of The Players, Jared Rice to recite the statistics for this week’s tournament at the TPC at Sawgrass.

“Twenty-five countries, over a billion households, the tournament telecast is distributed in over 30 languages, this is one of the highest trafficked weeks of the year at Jacksonville International Airport, Hotel occupancy is at it’s highest,” he said on Monday. “It really is a showcase of our region, we love this community, it’s a great place to live work and play, bring in out of town guests, business decision makers, it’s a great opportunity for us.”

If you’ve been out to the Stadium Course at all in the last four months you know they’ve made a lot of changes to the golf course and to the spectator experience. And there’s always more work to do.

“It’s less than 24 hours away when we open the doors to the public,” Rice added. “A little paint, some final nails, we are ready to go and look forward to seeing everyone out here tomorrow.”

For years The Players boasted of being the “best field in golf.” This year, that’s just a fact. Only two of the top 50 aren’t here. Brandt Snedeker is injured and Belgian Thomas Pieters didn’t enter. Currently, 46 of the top 50 FedEx Cup will compete this week. And as far as the actual strength of the field, there are 110 PGA Tour winners among Thursday’s starters with the players entered combining for 458 PGA Tour wins.

Two-time Arnold Palmer Invitational winner and Florida Gator Matt Every lives nearby but isn’t as familiar with the course or the changes as you might think.

“I don’t come here a lot,” he explained. “It’s pretty crowded during the year, kinda like a resort. My game’s all right, it’s good enough. I’m not far off at all.”

And even with that, Every wasn’t convinced of his chances this week.

“I’m not playing super good right now so it would be shocking for me if I would win here,” knowing he missed the cut at Sawgrass two of the last three years. “I know when it’s coming and when it’s not so if it happens great but if not, it’s OK.”

With the changes on the golf course, some players agree it will make it more difficult, favoring somebody who has some patience this week.

“These greens have always been firm. It’s nice, they’re brand new greens and it’s nice that we’ll have them firm this year,” former FedEx Cup champ, local resident and Florida Gator Bill Horschel said after a practice round.

“I think aesthetically they did a real nice job of improving the course. I think everyone’s raved about it,” he added. “They did a fairly decent job at 12. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of guys go for it this year so they’ll come back and tweak it.”

Again this year, PGA Tour officials decided not to open the course to the public on Monday, giving players a lot of space to work on their games. That’s probably why so many, including the defending champion Jason Day, were at the course early.

“It’s nice, it’s considered a fifth major and a lot of guys come out here and practice and do our own thing,” Horschel explained. “‘Bothered’ isn’t the right terminology but it’s nice to have a peaceful quiet day before all of the commotion gets going tomorrow. They could have record breaking attendance to it would be awesome to see.”

DL3 In The HOF, Still Wants To Play

It would be easy to describe Davis Love III as a local guy who made good. But he’s so much more than that. A golf pedigree that included his father as a former professional and one of the top teachers in the world and a low-handicap mom put “DL3” at the top of prodigies expected to ascend to the top of the game. With prodigious length (for the time) coming out of high school at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Davis went to the University of North Carolina before turning pro and joining the PGA Tour.

“When you start this journey you don’t think of the Hall of Fame. At 20-years old I just wanted a to have a job, wanted to play golf and hoped to win one golf tournament,” Davis told me at the World Golf Hall of Fame on Tuesday. Love was at the Hall with three other members of the 2017 Hall of Fame class (Meg Mallon, Ian Woosnam, and Lorena Ochoa) to preview their induction in September and hold a panel discussion for media and fans. (The late Henry Longhurst fills out the class).

His resume is much longer than just winning a tournament. Winning 21 times including a major championship (the 1998 PGA Championship), two Players, four Heritages and a PGA Tour win when he was 51 years old in 2015 are only a sprinkling of his victories. Add in two appearances as the Ryder Cup captain and it adds up to a Hall of Fame career.

“To go in with such icons of the game, I say it’s humbling,” Love explained during our discussion. “To just be mentioned, and to go in with this class. Friends of mine, friends I’ve competed with. I’m honored to be a part of it. I didn’t see myself as a leader in the game, it’s an amazing class.”

Being able to take skills as a golfer and use them as a touring professional takes some adjustment. There are plenty of great players who couldn’t adjust to the lifestyle and what it takes to grind it out week after week. Love says that’s one of the first things he learned when he joined the Tour.

“You have to learn it’s so much more than playing golf. Dealing with the travel, family, different conditions, the celebrity status. Some guys can handle it, some can’t”

Based on the era that he played, Jack Nicklaus was the first professional athlete and golfer who was celebrated for his ability and willingness to balance his “job”and his family life.

“He was a great example,” Davis said of Nicklaus’ ability to be the best player in the world and still be a part of his children’s lives. Love and his wife Robin looked to Jack and Barbara Nicklaus as a guidepost. “This is how you live a life on the Tour. You have to balance. I wanted to be at my daughter’s horse shows, my son’s golf tournaments. I wanted to go skiing and snowboarding. I think my kids would say we accomplished that.”

Coming off a broken collarbone, Love has known his share of injuries away from the golf course but says he’ll be fresh when he returns to playing, soon.

“I’m going to play a lot on the regular tour this year, I’m exempt lifetime (for having 20 PGA Tour wins) but I don’t want to take up a spot. I’ll go play with my friends on the Senior Tour. I’ve missed three months here and there in the past couple of years so I’ll be fresh when I do come out.”

Talking with Davis, his competitive desire is still obvious and during both of his stints as Davis Cup captain he was hoping to play his way onto his own team. “But then reality set in,” he said with a laugh. “But there’s that competitiveness. You want to make an impact as a player or as the captain and be a part of the team.”

In the upcoming Presidents Cup in New Jersey (the week of the Hall of Fame induction), Love will be an assistant captain to Steve Stricker. He’ll also serve as an assistant to Jim Furyk in Paris in 2018 for the Ryder Cup.

“It’s different,” he noted, playing the Ryder Cup in Europe. That’s why Jim is perfect for Paris; He can handle the extra attention, the extra travel and the fact that it’s an away game. Playing in Europe is that much tougher, especially since we were able to win one last year,” Davis added with a smile.

So he’ll be wearing headsets and talking to players, and maybe even do some TV (Don’t be surprised if he shows up on NBC during the Players in May.) But it’s with clubs in his hand that he’s hoping to still feel the pressure of being on the leaderboard.

“Golf is the one sport, maybe auto racing, you can last a long time if you stay fit and stay confident. We saw Greg Norman and Tom Watson almost win majors. Raymond Floyd won in his 50’s; Sam Snead won a bunch as he got older. I love playing and I don’t want to give it up.”