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 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.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Palmer’s Local Friends: “You’d have loved him even if he wasn’t a golfer”

It’s terrible that it takes the passing and mourning the loss of a mutual friend to reconnect you with people who were integral parts of your life at one point. They drift away for various reasons but in this case, the death of Arnold Palmer brought a lot of people back into my life who I’d lost touch with through my own fault.

So I spent part of the day talking to friends and associates of Arnold Palmer here in town. John Tucker, one of the founders of the Greater Jacksonville Open and Liz McCarty, Palmer’s Administrative assistant for 18 years. I also talked with Erik Larsen and Harrison Minchew, golf designers for Palmer’s company in Ponte Vedra, Larsen eventually becoming President of Arnold Palmer Course design. He told me he was just trying to “keep his head above the flood of memories.” Erick will be at Palmer’s memorial service next week in Latrobe. Harrison recalled Palmer as the personification of the “Golden Rule.” “He treated everybody well, just like you’d want to be treated. Always kind and polite.”

Arnold and John Tucker became friends in 1962, meeting in Pensacola. “We hit it off for one reason or another right away,” Tucker recalled sitting in a comfortable chairs on his front lawn in San Marco.

Tucker and a group of Jacksonville businessmen wanted to start a golf tournament here In Jacksonville. Their meeting at Silvers Drug Store in Jacksonville Beach is part of the lore of what is now The Players in Ponte Vedra. But then, getting Arnold Palmer to play in your tournament was the key. Tucker was working for the phone company here in town and laughed when he said, “I was the only guy with free long distance. So I just started calling people and got some dates for a golf tournament.”

Palmer’s relationship with Tucker brought him to town and he took a liking to Jacksonville. He brought Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player (who was friends with one of my predecessors here at Channel 4 Dick Stratton) and the Greater Jacksonville Open was born. “When Arnold gave his blessing the money was better, the accommodations were better the ticket sales were better. Without him, I don’t know that we would have made it.”

John eventually ran the TPC in it’s infancy here in town and told me today, none of the golf presence here in North Florida would have happened without Palmer’s initial influence. The GJO even printed manuals about how to run a tournament that eventually made their way to other fledgling PGA Tour events. Then Commissioner Deane Beman took notice, investigated what was going on in Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra and the story of The Players home in North Florida had its beginning.

“He was a guy you’d have loved even if he wasn’t a golfer, even if he wasn’t famous,” Tucker said. “I played a lot of golf with Arnold and when he was on the first tee he’d give you whatever (strokes) you wanted. He didn’t want to play for much money. Just enough that when he took it from you you’d notice,” he said with a laugh. “And I can’t tell you how many times he’d make a putt on 18 wo win 1-up.”

Liz McCarthy, his administrative assistant for 18 years said he was the same on and off the golf course; she traveled the world with Palmer, organizing openings of new golf courses and appearances. She said he “opened doors for people, looked you in the eye when he shook your hand, took his hat off when appropriate. The consummate, competitive gentleman.”

“He was at a photo shoot and he kept taking his hat off when he was talking with people,” Liz recalled. “The photographer noticed and said something to me and I had to tell him ‘when he’s talking to a woman or he’s shaking somebody’s hand, that’s what he’ll do. That’s how he was raised.'”

Competitive was part of Palmer’s personality and McCarthy saw it after his playing career ended. “He wanted to win and his competition was now in the design business,” she said outside a coffee shop at the Town Center.

Unlike what we’d ever seen in sports before, Palmer embraced and welcomed his competitors as friends. And that didn’t change once his playing days were over.

“He and Jack (Nicklaus) were close,” McCarthy pointed out. “He was close with Gary (Player). When Winnie (Palmer’s first wife) died, the first people to arrive in Latrobe were Jack and Barbra Nicklaus.”

One thing that Liz said really struck a chord with me. Arnold Palmer had friends in Jacksonville, and homes in Orlando and Latrobe. But people all over the world thought they had a personal connection with him. Even if they had met him for 30 seconds, they felt like he was “their guy.”

“He had that ability, which was just part of his personality, to look you in the eye, listen to what you said, and really understand what you were talking about. It wasn’t an act, he really felt it.”

So in other words, people thought they had a personal connection with Arnold Palmer

Because they did.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Arnold Palmer: No One Like Him

You know people won’t live forever but with Arnold Palmer you thought that might be possible. He lived life with such passion and spirit yet with a humility and grace that never wavered. Palmer battled several illnesses over the past two years and died today at age 87 of heart complications.

Usually tucked in the back pages of sports, Palmer brought the game to the forefront with his charisma and style. His game shoved him into the limelight when the son of a golf pro and greens keeper won the US Amateur. Arnold was no country club type. He was a worker and looked the part. His arms jutting out under his short-sleeved shirt, Palmer hit it hard and had a “go for it” mentality that was appealing to the casual golf fan. His game was “made for TV” and his ascension to the top of the sport coincided with the explosion of television in America in the late ’50’s and 60’s.

With seven major wins including four Masters, Palmer validated his fame and popularity by winning. He finished his career with 62 wins and 10 more on the senior tour. In fact, Arnold basically invented both tours with his own personality and style. “Every professional golfer should give Arnold Palmer 50 cents of every dollar they make,” one of his competitors once said. And he was right. As good as Jack Nicklaus was and Hogan and Snead, Nelson and the rest, nobody captured the imagination and catapulted the game forward like Arnold Palmer.

For about 25 years, since his design company was based here in Ponte Vedra, I spent a lot of time with Arnold professionally and socially. I’m often asked if there are highlights to my career. My answer for a while has been “I’ve had breakfast with Muhammad Ali, beers with Arnold Palmer and flown with the Blue Angels.” The answer I usually get back is, “Doesn’t get any better than that.” And that’s true. It really doesn’t.

Despite being one of the most recognizable sports figures in the world, Arnold never lost the common touch or the ability to give you his undivided attention. A conversation with Palmer was a real talk, not some canned speech he spouted as he moved on.

When Arnold Palmer Course Design opened the Mill Cove Golf Club in Arlington, Palmer was there to play in the opening round. I was in the foursome behind him and brought my dad, a non-golfer along for the fun. After nine holes, my dad went to the clubhouse to get something to drink and wait for us to finish the back nine. Arnold finished about 15 minutes in front of me but when I came to the final hole we were playing that day, Palmer and my dad were standing on the balcony as a makeshift gallery. I waved and they both waved back, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I don’t know how Arnold and my dad were introduced but they’re about the same age and both served in the Coast Guard so they had a common bond. And of course, Arnold had a common bond with everybody. I had hit 6-iron in to about 20 feet and was eyeing the putt from several angles when Arnold said, “Hey Sam, while we’re young!” with a big laugh. Luckily I made the putt, and had Arnold sign my Wilson 8802 putter, the one he used for years, when I got to the clubhouse. My dad still tells that story and more of it, with Arnold ordering shrimp, because my dad liked shrimp, even though none was on the menu. The chef brought shrimp.

Everybody who ever came in contact with Palmer has a story. All are about his grace and kindness with humility and humor mixed in. If you met Arnold once, you thought you had a connection for life. He shook your hand and looked you in the eye. He was polite and kind. He was truly someone to look up to.

Which is how we should honor Arnold. Look at the verve he had in his life and follow it. Look at his kindness and charity and emulate it. Remember his polite manner, his commitment to doing his best no matter the situation and put that into your own actions.

Even though he’s gone I won’t use “was” to describe Arnold Palmer.

He is one of a kind.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Graeme Mcdowell Owns Restaurants, Wants To Play Golf

Dark woods, understated lighting and plenty of glass greet you as you step inside the new Nona Blue Tavern in Ponte Vedra. International and PGA Tour player Graeme McDowell and his two partners opened the doors to their second restaurant on Wednesday, donating a check for $15,000 to Tom Coughlin and the Jay Fund, money raised from their soft opening earlier this week.

“I don’t remember feeling this way about the first one,” McDowell said on the back deck of his new restaurant. Their first Nona Blue opened in Orlando near McDowell’s Florida home in Lake Nona. This one seemed a natural progression, right down the street from the PGA Tour headquarters.

“Great local people and family,” Graeme said of the people he’s met in Ponte Vedra. “The first one was a stab in the dark, we feel like we know what we’re doing and they’ve done such a good job with the Sawgrass shopping area. We’re happy to be in the community.”

A self-proclaimed “foodie,” McDowell said he didn’t know much about the restaurant business when they first started but learned quickly.

“It took me a little while. I learned build outs are very expensive. I leave the flippin’ burgers and the hiring and firing to my guys and I see myself more of the PR and branding guy.”

Based on how much golf is played near his restaurant in Orlando, the Nona Blue name became known fast.

“The response I get from all over America is great. People shouting “Nona Blue” at me and G-Mac and cheese (a menu item). It’s really cool, it’s overwhelming the support I’ve gotten in Orlando and hopefully here.”

It’s not a sports bar, but there will be plenty of sports watching done. And it’s not just a place for guys to meet after a round at one of the local golf courses.

“We’re not trying to position ourselves as an NFL watching Sunday destination, but the games will be on,” McDowell explained. “We want you to be able to come in with your wife or girlfriend, but also the boys can come in after a round and drink a few rounds. Approachability, warm, comfortable.”

You could see the pain in his face when he started to talk about golf and the upcoming Ryder Cup. McDowell’s play over the last two seasons didn’t earn him a spot on the team. He didn’t like that.

“The Ryder cup, not being on that team, that’s going to hurt, sitting on my couch and watching but I’m going to watch every shot and it’ll motivate me to get back there.”

It’s not as if he’s completely disappeared. McDowell won a tournament in November of last year but is currently ranked 78th in the world. That’s not the form the former US Open champion is looking for.

“I think streaky is a fair assessment,” he said. “When I play well I play really well. Life’s been a real distraction for me for all the right reasons in the last couple of years. I’ve gotten married had two children and opened two restaurants.”

But golf is moving back up his priority list. “I’ve rededicated myself to the game because that’s still what I want to do. I had to ask myself some tough questions this time last year and ask myself what I wanted to do and I found that I still love golf and want to win another major before I’m done. It’s a refocusing, I feel lighter and leaner than I’ve ever been,” Graeme explained looking fitter than his form in the last 15 months.

And as far as the Ryder Cup goes, McDowell sees the Cup changing hands at Hazeltine.

“I really feel like there’s a change in the feel of the American side. You’ve got a lot of young guys who are really, really close. Like a little fraternity out there. It’s something you can’t create.”

“We have six rookies on the European squad but rookies are not what they used to be. They’ve played a lot of golf in the States. I look for it to be a close one as usual. I have a bad feeling for us but I’ll be pulling for the Europeans. I’ll be using it as motivation.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Hale Irwin at WGV: Winners have the heart of a champion

During his time on the PGA Tour, Hale Irwin had a reputation as a fierce competitor. It helped him to three U.S. Open titles but it also meant he was respected and sometimes feared by his peers.

Irwin shot a final round 69 at the Regions Tradition in Birmingham on Sunday, just a few days short of his 71st birthday. He then made the short trip to St. Augustine and the World Golf Hall of Fame to to see the collection of golf memorabilia and artifacts found in the Museum. The current record holder for Champions Tour victories with 45 had not been to World Golf Village in nearly 20 years.

I reminded him he’s been a member of the Hall of Fame for nearly 25 years and 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of his win in the NCAA Championship.

“You want to hear those numbers I guess,” he joked. “It’s better than the alternative.”

But you can tell now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the 20-time winner on the PGA TOUR is appreciative but humbled by the Hall.

“Being a part of the greatest who’ve every played this game is pretty humbling,” he said reverently.

And the World Golf Village has transformed itself in Irwin’s eyes into a “must see” attraction for sports fans.

“It’s interactive, the displays are just fantastic. What people have put in here from their own collections! It’s amazing to see how these people have touched the game of golf or maybe more importantly how the game of golf has touched them.”

I snuck a peek at Irwin’s locker in the Hall where he has one of the first sets of clubs he ever played with as a kid when he was 4 years old.

“Those are very simple. They’re old. Archaic. It’s an old, old bag with cut off clubs I used as a little boy,” he said with a laugh. “But l think you have to get grounded every now and again and it takes me back to my parents, my dad, the little town I grew up in in southeast Kansas and how I got started.”

Those clubs are a far cry from the composite heads and solid golf balls that have changed the game dramatically. But Irwin says the top players of any era could compete across the board.

“Are the players at the top of the game now better than players before? No, they’re just playing in different eras. They have the heart of a champion. There’s more depth in the game but you look at Snead, Hogan, Sarazen, Palmer, Nicklaus, Player. They’d have been able to compete.”

Although Hale did admit when watching a PGA TOUR event these days it’s obvious the players themselves have changed.

“They’re all 6’2″, thin and look young!” he said with a chuckle.

In Irwin’s era on the TOUR players came in all shapes and sizes. But he stayed fit, thinking it was part of playing the game.

“”I’ve been in a lot of sports and I was a college football player and I thought that being in shape was the thing to do. It helped me. I think people now are understanding that when they see golfers they’re not just some guy who jumped up from the bar and went to play. They’re athletes. Most of them are good at something else too.”

On one hand technology has changed how the game is played but Irwin believes the idea hasn’t changed.

“The game is still played with the same idea, it’s just how you go about it. Everything is made to go high and fly far. We watched Jason Day hit that 2-iron (at THE PLAYERS) 308 yards. How is that possible?”

And while the top players are taking advantage of the technology boost in golf, Irwin agreed that the equipment allowing better play for the average player is also good for the game.

“People who are playing the game now might see some more immediate positive results with today’s equipment. That’s what people want to see in today’s society and that’s what you’re going to see.”

While he won three U.S. Opens, none were at Oakmont where this year’s Championship will be contested. Irwin is familiar with the layout and says it’ll take some guile, and brawn to win. I said with all the top players playing well it could be an exciting tournament to watch.

“It will be,” he said emphatically. “I’m going to go out on a branch here and say it’s going to be a veteran who wins this year. You can’t just go out there and bang it willy-nilly at Oakmont. It takes some knowledge of where you can hit it. Not that some of those young guys can’t do it. But I think somebody’s going to step out of the shadows of those young lions to put some heat on them.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Day Wins THE PLAYERS 2016

It might have looked like a calm “walkabout” but Jason Day said it was anything but before the final round of the 2016 Players.

“I told Ellie earlier this morning, this is probably the most nervous I’ve been before a tournament round,” he recounted after finishing at -15 and recording his seventh victory in his last 17 starts, adding THE PLAYERS in 2016 to his resume.

Entering the final round with a four shot lead, Day played the front nine in two over par, including a bogey from 25 feet on the par 5 ninth. He said making the putt there for bogey was the most important shot of the week and kept him focused on playing well.

“I just kept on saying to myself, just settle yourself down. Don’t do anything too drastic and try and chase pins or do anything stupid out there because, other than 9, for the most part — I didn’t play a great front nine, but once I got to 10, I kind of said to myself, you’re still in the game, you’ve still got the lead.”

Day birdied 10 and followed that with another at 12 and one at 16. He said he was still nervous on 17 hitting his 52 degree wedge “But I was close to hitting it in the bloody water there.”

He said he savored the walk down 18 as much as he could, knowing victory was at hand. But despite the winning percentage and the success he’s had, he’s hungry for more.

“I’m trying to extend that lead, so that I stay on top, because at the end of the day, it’s very stressful being the No. 1 player in the world,” he explained. “You’re in the limelight a lot. You’ve got more things to do when you get to tournaments, more things to do off weeks. But I wouldn’t change it in any way because this is exactly where I want to be, and I want to try and stay here as long as I can while I can, because nothing beats this feeling.”

As the runner-up, Kevin Chappell didn’t get the victory he wanted but gained a lot of confidence. Chappell had nines of 29, 31 and 32 and was at 2 over through 26 holes of the tournament. So even though he had a lot of solid stretches, he knows he still needs a bit of work.

“I’ve got a lot of horsepower,” he said. “This horse can run. Got to get rid of some of the bogeys. I really didn’t scramble that well this week, and I feel like that’s been something I’ve leaned on this whole year. Just look at it as an anomaly, and got to get back to work and get at it again at Colonial.”

Finishing with a flourish, a birdie on 18, Justin Thomas’ 65 in the final round of this year’s Players shot him straight up the leaderboard.

“I love this course,” he said more than two hours before Jason Dan walked up 18. “I’m glad to have shot a good score on a championship venue like this.”

When asked if he thinks about what shots he could have saved Thursday or Friday he laughed and said, “Man, that’s golf. I’m thinking about the once I gave away today!”

Thomas admitted he didn’t think he had a chance to win the golf tournament when he came to the course this morning but would stick around to see what Day would do. “Have to,” he said with a smile.

A closing 68 left Adam Scott at -7 and if not for an eight on 18 on Friday, he admitted he was playing well enough to win.

“It could have been a different story for me over the weekend had I not done that,” the 2004 champion explained. “But that’s one of 72 holes I have to play. I hung in there and had a good finish down the stretch. I go away from the week feeling like I’m playing some good golf.”

Noting that he and Jason have been top 15 players in the world for the past five years, Scott said the state of the game in Australia is good. Standing atop the FedEx rankings, Scott says Day is inspiring kids Down Under to take the game up.

“Jason is going to be inspiring kids like he was inspired by Tiger. That’s really important for the overall makeup of the game down there. It’s nice to see.”

After losing his chance to win the tournament with a nine on 17 yesterday including three balls in the water, local resident Russell Knox called it a “career defining moment” when he came to 17 today.

“I’ve never been so nervous over a shot in my whole life,” the former JU player said. “If I couldn’t get off the tee there today, I was in big trouble. So I was very happy that I hit the green. Even though I three-putted, I beat my score by five yesterday, so pretty solid.” Knox posted a 68 in the final round to finish at five under. Ironically, his only bogey of the day was at 17.

An anticipated run by Rory McIlroy never materialized as he couldn’t ever build on any momentum. At 8 under par after 11 holes the world #3 was looking to make something happen but didn’t convert on any of his chances. He says it’s similar to how he’s played over the last year.

“I’m just not — it’s just not — everything is just not clicking,” he explained. “Hopefully as the summer approaches, everything can start to click and I can go on a run, because I really don’t feel like it’s too far away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

THE PLAYERS Round 2: Low Scores Again

It was a blistering pace that he couldn’t possibly keep up but it was clear Rory McIlroy brought his ‘A’ game for the second round of THE PLAYERS. Starting on the back nine where he’s had tremendous success, Mcilroy birdied the first four holes and went birdie-eagle at 15 and 16 to shoot 29 on his opening nine holes. That tied the record set just yesterday by Shane Lowry.

“I knew that the course was going to play much easier than it did yesterday afternoon,” he explained in the “flash” interview right after his round. “This course really does play so much differently from morning to afternoon.”

Over the past three years, McIlroy has played the back in 44 under par but is 13 over par on the front. While he didn’t scorch the front, birdies at 2 and 7 put him on the verge of tying or setting the course record. But his lone bogey of the round came at the par five ninth. Rory said he’s carrying at 2-iron this week instead of a 5-wood and that influenced his decision to lay up instead of going for the green in two.

“So I sort of talked myself out of it on the fairway,” he said. “And I laid up and thought, I’ll take my chances from inside a hundred yards from the fairway. I might have left myself a little bit too close. I was trying to get really sort of cute with it, I guess, and I just hit it too easy.”

Coming down the stretch, McIlroy said he was aware he had a chance at the course record and was looking to make a closing birdie to shoot 62. Despite moving back into contention, he admitted his round couldn’t have been lower.

“I’m disappointed, but there’s still two more days to go. But that’s the nice thing; I’m in a good position heading into the weekend. The course will play a little bit tougher this afternoon, but hopefully I’m still not too far behind going into the weekend.”

Starting on the front, Colt Knost moved to the top of the leaderboard with a course record tying 63 in his second round.

“The fairways are running, which kind of makes this place challenging,” he said, “But at the same time it makes it play so short. I’m having so many wedges into greens, obviously I’m one of the shorter hitters out here, but you give us wedges into these greens, you’re going to be able to get aggressive.

Knost shot 31-32 with five consecutive birdies from 5-8 on the front and followed that with four birdies on the back. He came to 18 at ten under but a bogey on the finishing hole cost him the course record. And he knew it.

“Yeah, for sure I knew it. I watch a lot of golf, to be honest,” he explained. “When I birdied 15 to get to 9, I kind of thought, I’m going to have a really good chance at this thing, especially going into 16, and honestly got pretty unlucky on 16 where my second shot ended up, but hit two great shots on 17, and then I knew where I stood on 18, and I also knew I snap-hooked it in the water there yesterday, so that went through the head.”

A driver and a 7-iron left Knost two putts from the record but he couldn’t complete that task.

“It seems like every time you try to two-putt, you leave yourself something a little more than you want. I was nervous over the last putt just because — you know, so many great players have played this golf course and all that, and to be the first one and only one to shoot 10-under would have been really cool.”

Perhaps some familiarity with the course is a bonus as Jax Beach resident Jonas Blixt carded his second straight 67 to finish the first two rounds at -10. Blixt’s 67 included 3 bogeys to go along with eight birdies. It’s not surprising to see Alex Cejka’s name near the top of the leaderboard. Having been the 54-hole leader a few years ago, Cejka is accustomed to going low at the stadium course, backing up his opening 67 with another to finish 54 holes at -10. Bo Weekley continued his solid play following his opening round 66 with a 69 and is at 9 under.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Wilcox Hole In One At 17

For the 13th hole-in-one of his golfing career, PGA TOUR player Will Wilcox picked a high profile spot. A pitching wedge from 147 yards flew straight and true and rolled into the cup at the 17th hole at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course on Friday. It’s the first ace at 17 in 14 years during THE PLAYERS. Miguel Angel Jiminez made the last in 2002.

Shortly thereafter, a sign was posted in the media dining area in front of the cooler saying Will would like to buy the media a beer to celebrate his hole in one. And to top it off, Wilcox and his caddie came by after his second round 71 (he’s -5 for the tournament) to literally have a beer with the media.

“Eleven years old, 7 iron, 134 yards,” Wilcox said when asked about his first ace. With 13 of them on his resume, he said he really couldn’t remember his last but “I’ll always remember my first.”

When I mentioned to Wilcox that the last guy who had some success on the Stadium Course with a colored golf ball was Jerry Pate, he said, “He’s a ‘Bama guy, sort of.” (Pate attended the University of Alabama.)

Wilcox is from Birmingham and played college golf at UAB before going on the tour and graduating to the PGA TOUR. Easygoing and friendly, he was honest when asked why he plays a yellow ball.

“Because Srixon likes it,” he said with a smile. “And that’s good enough.”

With the pin position in the back, Wilcox was as surprised as anyone that he made the first hole in one in 6,300 tournament swings at 17.

“When we got there yesterday I said to the guys in my group, ‘Oh with that pin position, (up front) somebody will knock that in,'” he explained. “So with it back today I was just hoping to not chunk it in the water.”

As he and his caddie packed up and headed home for the night he turned to the dozen or so of us left and waved, “Let’s do this again tomorrow.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Play Suspended At THE PLAYERS in Rd. 2

There’s not a hard and fast rule on when to stop play because of weather on the PGA TOUR but they do have parameters. Tournament officials who are on the road each week at the various TOUR stops work with the on-site meteorologist to decided when to stop play.

“It depends on the speed of the storm and the lightning involved,” one TOUR official said when play was suspended at THE PLAYERS at 4:08 EDT on Friday.

“We’re looking at how long it would get the number of fans off the golf course safely as the weather comes in,” he explained.

The TOUR has an evacuation plan in place for the players on course with vans put in place in what they call “Phase Two” of the preparations. They preposition the vans in case the weather does come in quickly so they can get the players off the course quickly and safely.

They’ll play in rain but lightning “in the general area” causes the TOUR to suspend play immediately.

Today was no different as the PGA TOUR posted weather-warning signs throughout the Stadium Course alerting fans that a weather delay was imminent and to take appropriate action.

Once the single horn sounded, players were allowed to mark their ball on the course and were hustled off to the locker room.

Jason Day is -3 today through eight holes and -12 for the tournament. He has a two shot lead over Jonas Blixt, Alex Cejka and Cameron Tringale.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Spite A Favorite, And Not Just For Golf

As I was walking by the front door of Sawgrass Country Club, I noticed Jordan Spieth sitting in his PGA Tour courtesy car, working on his phone. That’s when former player and current PGA Tour caddie (for Webb Simpson) Paul Tesori came up with his wife Michelle and their son.

“Say hi to Uncle Jordan,” Michelle exclaimed, as she handed the 2-½ year old boy to Spieth.

“He buddy,” Jordan said as he lightly kissed the young Tesori on the cheek.

Spieth was at Sawgrass CC today in support of Tesori’s foundation (Tesori Family Foundation.) With a special needs sister, Jordan was more than glad to help raise the awareness for Tesori, whose son has Down’s Syndrome.

“You’ve all heard of Jordan’s exploits on the course as a golfer,” Tesori said in front of the assembled crowd. “But I want to talk about him as a man,” he continued. “At 22 years old he’s wise beyond his years, compassionate, helpful and here despite having an early tee time tomorrow!”

Tesori’s passion for helping kids and families touched by Down’s Syndrome is evident. Spieth has looked to Tesori for some guidance on Tour.

“Pauly is one of the most special people I know,” Jordan said after finishing with pictures with the participants. “He down to earth, fantastic man. Anything he needs, I’m there for him.”

Spieth’s commitment to his sister has been well documented and he admits the group of people involved in helping special needs children is a tight knit group. “There are a lot of similarities in families that have special needs kids and adults,” he explained. “It’s kinda cool to always meet them and share stories of who we are because it is very different.”

Earlier in the day the two-time major champion played 18 holes in a practice round with Colt Knost, Troy Merritt and Ryan Palmer. It appeared they had a friendly game going where holing out was important.

Not sure who walked away a winner, but Spieth was pleased with the golf course, calling it one of his favorites.

“It’s very pure,” he noted. “This is one of my favorite courses in the world. Pete Dye did a great job here, and I enjoy playing his courses in general. You’ve got to strike the ball extremely well. It plays narrower than it seems.”

While the 22-year old is a favorite almost every time he tees it up, he’s expecially comfortable on the Stadium Course because of the accuracy it demands.

“It’s kind of a spot-to-spot type of golf course that requires working the ball both directions and controlling it in the wind,” he explained. “And obviously the closing stretch takes some nerve.”

As expected there were questions about Spieth letting the Masters slip away last month, something he talked about easily, giving Danny Willett credit for making putts when he had to but also admitting that it was tough playing 18 knowing he’d have to slip the Green Jacket on somebody else.

“I obviously knew that that was going to happen when I was teeing off on 18 tee box,” he added. “So I had that entire hole to play and the time after to kind of figure out my emotions. Just like three years ago, when I watched Bubba get the jacket on the 18th green, it’s motivation for next year.”

Will his failure to close out his second Masters have and effect if he gets into contention again?

I don’t think I have anything to prove,” he said. “I think I’ve already proven what we’re capable of doing when the pressure is on. But yeah, I mean, it’s behind me. I’m ready to move on and work back into contention. After a month off, it felt like a bit of a off-season, so it’s almost like a new year starting this week.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Day Early Leader At THE PLAYERS

On a day full of low scores perhaps it’s no surprise that the world’s number one player Jason Day grabbed the first round lead at THE PLAYERS, tying the course record at nine-under 63.

“The temperature was hot, so the ball was going a long way, and when the ball goes a long way, you’re coming in with shorter clubs if you hit the fairways,” he explained right after his round.

Day was so dominant in the opening round that he had a birdie putt on every hole and didn’t have a par putt longer than two feet. (By the way if you play golf, read that sentence again.)

“I can’t really recall the way that I hit the ball as well as I did today and then also putting as well as I did,” he said matter-of-factly.

In the run-up to this year’s tournament a lot of players thought the golf course was softer than in the past and would be receptive to low scores. Day agreed that he believed something significantly under par would lead after the first round.

“We thought the greens were sticking and a lot of guys could attack the pins that we had out there,” he added. “But shooting 63 was great today and there’s a lot of guys at 7-under par right now and a lot of guys that are going off the afternoon tee time that can definitely shoot that score as well.”

That might be the case, but birdies popped up for Day at some critical times, including on 17. The island green hole was playing 124 yards and Day said he was trying to hit it 130 but hit it “a little bit less.”

“And you still get nervous over that shot. Doesn’t matter if you’re hitting a pitching wedge or you’re hitting a sand wedge or lob wedge, it’s still tough to try and hit that shot.”

Although he played the back nine first, the reigning PGA Champion said it’s still exciting, coming to the finishing holes at the Stadium Course

“Especially when you’re coming, playing that back side,” he added. “You come into 16, you start to walk to 16 and you start hearing the crowd, you start getting a little bit nervous on trying to hit that tee shot. But good to get a birdie there.”

Starting his round on the 10th hole, Day birdieing the first three and number seven to make the turn at -4. He birdied one and two, number four and seven to get within one of the course record held by four other players with two holes to play.

His second shot on the par-5 ninth found a greenside bunker but out of the sand Day hit it to 18 inches for a tap-in and a 63. Pretty good for a guy who shot 81 in the second round of THE PLAYERS last year, his last round on the Stadium Course.

“I was really displeased with how I played last year, considering I was coming into that week feeling pretty good about my game and I just didn’t really play great in the second round.” With his current mindset and the confidence he has, the first round leader could put Greg Norman’s tournament record of 24-under in jeopardy.

“I’ve shot scores lower, but I think from tee to green and then on the green and then being patient and everything kind of just clicked today and I shot a good score.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

First Round Players Notes

Here are some notes from the first round:

Jason Day joins Greg Norman (1994) Fred Couples (1992) Roberto Castro (2013) and Martin Kaymer (2014) as a record holder for lowest round ever at the TPC Stadium Course during THE PLAYERS. Norman and Kaymer won the years they shot 63.

Day’s previous low round at THE PLAYERS was -4 68. His low round on tour is -10 61 at the 2015 BMW Championship where he won.

Norman and Tiger Woods (twice) are the only #1 ranked players in the world to win THE PLAYERS while being world number one.

Six first round leaders have won on the PGA TOUR this year.

Day has held or shared the first round lead 8 times in his career. Twice as the solo leader after 18 holes he’s gone on to victory.

Justin Rose went eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie on 16 -17-18-1-2 to match the streak Fulton Allem set in 1999. Six under on five holes.

Rose’s best finish at THE PLAYERS is T4 in 2014. He’s a seven-time winner on the PGA TOUR.

Cameron Tringale’s -7 is his lowest round ever at TPC Sawgrass. Same with Shane Lowery who also posted a 29 on the back nine. Bill Haas also shot 65, his lowest round in 29 tries at the Stadium Course.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Formula To Win THE PLAYERS? None

In succession the number one player in the world, last week’s winner on the PGA Tour and the 2016 Masters Champion all stepped up the podium to address this year’s Players Championship.

“This is the toughest field we have all year, It’s a big even and it’s getting bigger and bigger,” said world number one Jason Day.

“To me it’s similar to Augusta, every hole is special. Every hole you can make 10 or make 2,” said last week’s winner in Charlotte James Hahn.

“One,” Masters Champion Danny Willett said when asked how many times he’s played golf since winning at Augusta.

Just ask a question to any of these players, currently among the most recognizable on the PGA Tour, and you’ll get different answers about the course, their state of play and life in general.

Hahn revealed that the five hour drive from Charlotte to Jacksonville was accompanied by a crying baby in the car only to be overshadowed by the number of times he and his wife said, “Two-Time PGA Tour Champion.”

When asked if he’s changed more “nappies” (diapers) or signed more Masters pin flags in the last month, Willett chuckled “I’ve changed a few nappies, but there’s been a lot of signing that’s had to be done.”

And Day explained that his world ranking at number one gives him more confidence than ever being here.

“Yeah, I think it definitely feels different,” Day explained. “Obviously I haven’t had the greatest finishes here at THE PLAYERS Championship, but with that said, I feel a lot more prepared this year than I ever have in my career coming into this event. So I’m hoping that is a little bit of a different result this year.”

And as the top ranked player, Day says getting a Players win is on his list.

“It’s a golf tournament that you really do want to win and have it on your resume at the end of your career because it’s such a huge event. This is one of those tournaments where, if you’re on the border of getting into the Hall of Fame, this could kick it over and get you into the Hall of Fame.”

Wow. THE PLAYERS making the difference of getting into the Hall of Fame or not. That’s a first.

And Hahn says looking at the future and not the past, visualizing success and making it happen helped him overcome eight straight missed cuts and win last week in Charlotte. Even making a 10 on #16 at TPC can be a positive thought. Because the golf course can get in your head.

“I play every hole with a different mindset. I think it’s one of the toughest golf courses that we play all year. There’s not one hole where you can take for granted and say this is an easy par hole or an easy birdie hole. There is trouble everywhere. Hole 16 is very special to me. I had made, I think, a 10 on it last year and it was the best 10 I have ever made. I could have been a lot worse.” Whatever it takes!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Fowler Still “Likes the Vibe”

You’ve probably seen the commercials for The Players featuring the defending champion Rickie Fowler where he talks about “Jax Beach, Ponte Vedra and going to Taco Lu.” Having spent time with Fowler since the beginning of his career I can tell you he’s authentic when he says stuff like that. His comfort level at the TPC facility is only ramped up by how he likes coming here. As he said, “I like the vibe.”

“It’s definitely special to be back,” Fowler said opening up his press conference this afternoon. “Feels like coming back home. I was here just over a month ago for media day and I got to spend a little time around 16, 17 and 18, and it was fun to go out there and get around the course for the first time since last year.”

In contention last week in Charlotte, Fowler hit two balls in the water coming down the stretch on Sunday to fall a few strokes back. Much different from last year where he played the lights out on the back nine in the final round to force a playoff and then win it.

According to the defending champ, that’s golf.

“If it was an easy game, there would be a lot more people competing at a high level. But I think it’s just like any other professional sport in a way; at the highest level it’s such a fine line between playing great golf and being just off.”

Playing the same golf course for the same championship only happens every year at Augusta at the Masters when it comes to the Majors. Fowler thinks the TPC Stadium Course is demanding and thinks driving the ball accurately is one of the most important parts of posting a low number. World number one Jason Day said he hits a lot of 3-woods off the tee here to try to be accurate. Fowler took us through his thought process standing on each tee:

“Driver 1, 2, 3-wood on 4, driver 5, 3-wood 6, driver 7, driver 9, 3-wood 10, driver 11, 3-wood 12, driver 14, 15, 16, 18. And we shot 67. We’re off to a good start,” he recited going through all 18 holes. “And we shot 67. We’re off to a good start,” he deadpanned to laughter among the assembled media.

Perhaps you remember during last year’s players that a poll was published calling Fowler the “Most overrated” player on the PGA Tour. It was laughable then and winning THE PLAYERS made it look silly. He followed that up with wins in Scotland, Boston and Abu Dhabi, opening the floodgates for success. Is it because he put more pressure on himself to win? Actually it’s a question of being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.

“I don’t think you put more pressure. I think you have the expectations. I know after this win last year, just I talked about having more confidence and the belief when I was back in kind of in contention at the next events, just how comfortable I felt, and it was a lot more fun being back in that situation because I knew what I was up against. I knew I could take care of business,” he explained.

“It’s fun winning out here. It’s a lot of fun when you get to spend some late Sunday nights in the media center, so I don’t know if it’s any extra pressure, I think it’s just that expectation and you want to get back in that position again.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Furyk Returns Optimistic At PLAYERS

Forced out of action last September with a wrist injury, Ponte Vedra’s Jim Furyk thought he’d be back on the course before the first of the year. But on February 1st, still struggling to get healthy, Furyk announced he’d miss another three months because of surgery on his wrist. “This has been frustrating for me to this point,” he said announcing the surgery, “But I am focusing on an aggressive rehabilitation program.”

Today it was a bit surprising to see him at the Stadium Course after starting his year last week at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.

“I feel alright,” Jim said this afternoon. “I wish I would have played better last week. I knew I’d be rusty, I’m not quite 100% but the only way to get stronger is to play.”

Although he lives a driver and 5 iron from the TPC at Sawgrass, Furyk’s time on the road doesn’t allow him to be that familiar with the Stadium Course.

“It’s not a place I’ve had a lot of success in the past, I probably enjoyed starting in Charlotte a little better since I’ve won there,” he explained.

But the fact that one of the most significant tournaments of the year is played in his backyard isn’t lost on the 17-time PGA Tour winner. “It’s nice to be at home this week. I’m in familiar surroundings, in my own bed. I’ll practice at my normal facilities the way I normally do.”

At 45 years old, Furyk has a routine he follows each week, so being at the event site on a Monday was quite a bit different for him. “I’m rarely here on Monday,” he said as he headed to the range. “In a perfect world I’d have made the cut in Charlotte, played four rounds and had today as a day off. But having a weekend off I wanted to hit some balls, stay loose and see how the golf course is playing. How are the greens? I haven’t seen the golf course in months so I’m anxious to see how it’s playing.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

More Players At THE PLAYERS On Monday

For years, Monday was a moneymaking day on the PGA Tour. Not in competition, but rather at corporate outings, appearances and making money for charity. With the amount of money available each week at the regular Tour stops, some of that has disappeared.

Monday’s at major championships are full of practice rounds and arrivals and that’s becoming the norm at the Players.

“Some weeks I am, some weeks I’m not,” Brandt Snedeker said as he made his way to the putting green. “But it’s such a big event for us, I’m out here today, which is something I normally wouldn’t do.

More and more you hear players putting more emphasis on The Players, invoking the dreaded “M-word.”

“I’m treating this like a major championship,” the 8-time PGA Tour winner explained. “I’m going to play some golf today, hit some balls. I’ll amp up for tomorrow, and Wednesday will be kind of a light day to get ready for Thursday. You want to be prepared and give yourself every opportunity to play well.”

While he didn’t call it a major, Jacksonville Beach’s Matt Every said he was here today to get some work in because it’s in his hometown.

“Normally I don’t go to the golf course on Monday. Since I’m here, I might as well come and get some practice in. And it’s a little bit bigger week, this week means a little more so I’m trying to fine tune as much as I can.”

If there’s one thing that raises the profile of The Players, it’s the significance the competitors place on the tournament. Many of them remember watching it on television, fascinated by the golf course.

“Got a lot of family and friends out here,” Every, the former Gator explained. “I remember coming out here as a kid. Brings back a lot of memories so it’s a big week.”

And as far as Snedeker is concerned winning here is a big bump on your golfing resume. He’ll start the competition with Danny Willett and Justin Rose at 8:10 on the 10th tee Thursday.

“This is a huge week for us. It’s our flagship event on the PGA Tour. We view this as a major championship, the best field in golf. The course is in great shape, hopefully it brings out your best golf.”

Also going off the 10th tee Thursday with Webb Simpson and Ernie Else at 7:48, Every, a 2-time winner on tour says the Stadium Course should get your attention immediately.

“Accuracy off the tee is big,” he explained. “Grinding out here is big. If you get caught going through the motions here it can be a long week. Just make sure your brain is turned on all week.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Masters Traditions Like No Other

Each year in the run up to the first full week of April, in hushed tones we hear an announcer say, “A tradition like no other, the Masters.” It’s a catchy phrase but it’s actually true. The Masters has a tradition like no other sporting event. Other events have traditions, they drink milk in Victory Lane at the Indy 500 and the winners at Wimbledon get a chance to meet royalty. But at the Masters the traditions start early and continue through the sunset Green Jacket ceremony on Sunday.

I’ve been in Augusta for the Masters each year since 1979. As a young reporter in Charleston, S.C. I was excited to get my first invitation to cover golf’s first Major of the year. I was a little surprised when I arrived at Augusta National and it was tucked into a corner on Washington Road amid fast-food restaurants and discount stores. Just a small sign amongst the trees showed the way to Magnolia Lane. Back then, the media was allowed to come in the main gate, and then directed to the side where one of the practice area was a large expanse of green in front of the clubhouse. A gravel-covered parking lot had a single post near the middle that said “media” with volunteers showing the way. A short walk to the right of the clubhouse was the “media center” a Quonset hut down two wooden stairs with a manual scoreboard in the front and the clatter of portable, manual typewriters filling the air. Tom Place, the PGA Tour’s on-site media coordinator, saw me at the back door, no doubt looking bewildered, and shepherded me through the credentialing process. Not much past my 23rd birthday, I’m sure I was the youngest “reporter” in the building. I met Furman Bisher from Atlanta and Edwin Pope from Miami. Other icons of writing at the time like Herbert Warren Wind (he named “Amen Corner”) were scattered around the “room.” Pre-internet, pre-computers, pre-cell phones, it was a place full of activity. Everything was done manually. The scoring, the announcements, everything.

Being a city kid form Baltimore, I didn’t know much about golf before I went to college and stepping onto the golf course at Augusta National was like being dropped into a dream. From the golf shop the course unfolds in front of you as an expanse of green like I’d never seen. A former nursery, Augusta National had trees and flowers of every variety that were breathtaking.

You often hear the Masters described as “this special week.” Yes the tournament provides the backdrop for that, but the “specialness” comes in the people you see every year under the oak tree at the clubhouse, returning to experience the first elements of spring and renewing old friendships. As a sports fan, there’s no place like the veranda at Augusta National. I’ve seen just about every major sports figure at one time or another, relaxed and enjoying the atmosphere. The members provide part of that, a genteel-ness that can be attributed to the Masters home in Georgia but also to the gentlemanly nature of the game of golf and the traditions the game itself holds.

I’ve smoked a cigar with Sonny Jurgensen sitting on the porch of “The National” and had breakfast with Arnold Palmer in the upstairs dining room that once had a “Gentlemen Only” sign posted at the bottom of the stairs.

At my first Masters, the television station I was working for couldn’t afford a photographer so I enlisted my Dad to point the camera when I was conducting interviews. After Fuzzy Zoeller made the winning putt on 11 in sudden death, a member brought Zoeller back toward the clubhouse in a golf cart, stopping in front of me so I could ask the newest Masters champion a few questions. As he walked toward me I could hear my Dad behind me saying, “I don’t see him, I don’t see him.” A glance over my shoulder showed the viewfinder disconnected from the camera, easily fixed with one turn of the wrist behind my back. “There he is,” my Dad said as I shook hands with Fuzzy. The story line that week was Zoeller playing so well as a rookie at Augusta National and the fact that his wife was back in Indiana about to give birth to their first child. “Are you a dad yet?” I blurted out, putting the microphone under Fuzzy’s chin. “I don’t know,” he said with a laugh, “but after that she’s probably on her way to the hospital!” As I went to ask a second question, out of the dark about twenty microphones identifying media outlets from all over the world were pointed at me as I pulled my own mic back. That’s when I first realized: this is a big deal.

It’s at Augusta National where I’ve played 18 holes with Brent Musberger and caddied for David Duval in the par three contest. It’s where I got to know Pat Summerall and Hall of Famer Frank Chirkinian, the legendary golf producer. It’s there on the patio at lunch with the then-President of CBS Sports Peter Lund where I heard him say, “You know Sam, I got it down to you and Jim (Nantz) and for the life of me I can remember why I picked Jim.” (Yes, crushing) It’s where I encouraged my friend Todd to propose to his girlfriend, saying, “Really? Amen Corner would be the perfect spot.” And it’s where Chirkinian invited me to play one Monday after the Masters and I brought my friend former NFL quarterback Matt Robinson. “What is this the Chirkinian invitational,” the pro said with a laugh followed by, “You guys go over to the 10th tee and start on the back.” A dream come true for any golfer at any level.

It’s a worldwide event that happens close to home as evidenced by the number of languages you hear spoken on the golf course among the patrons and in and around the clubhouse. Two years ago a man making the “strike a match” motion approached me under the oak tree. Once I realized he spoke no English and he recognized that my Spanish was not good, we had a laugh and I gave him a matchbook and an extra cigar I was carrying. He was part of the Argentine Golf Federation, one of dozens invited to Augusta each year to represent the game in their country. The next afternoon while headed inside, my new Argentine friend tracked me down and insisted we share some time, and one of his cigars, under the oak. That doesn’t happen anywhere else.

Over the years I’ve covered every aspect of the tournament allowed from the practice rounds (which used to be open to anyone for a $15 admission) to the Thursday tradition of the ceremonial starters to the final putt dropping on Sunday. Sometimes our news management has sent me there for a week, sometimes for a day, and sometimes, not at all. On those occasions I’ve thought it was important enough to get there on my own and carry on my own tradition of being at The Masters. Because as I found out early on: it’s a big deal.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

“The Hayt” Tests College Players At Sawgrass CC

With the unpredictable weather in North Florida in late February you wouldn’t think that Ponte Vedra Beach would be a good location for an early-spring college golf tournament. But it’s exactly that unpredictability that has been an attractive part of “The Hayt” for 25 years.

Starting at Queens Harbor Golf Club and eventually moving the Sawgrass Country Club, the tournament has gone through some changes in venue and sponsorship (once known as the Mercedes Championships) but it’s the kind of test early in the year that lets players, coaches and entire teams know where they have their strengths and weaknesses.

“Last year it was cold, windy and rainy,” Lorens Chan, a senior at UCLA said this week. “We don’t get that kind of weather in Southern California and this week it’s really breezy. With those kinds of conditions, you find out very quickly if you have game or not.”

At 15-over par as a team (5 players) in the first round on Friday, Chan’s UCLA teammates saw Sawgrass in all its glory. Chan shot +2 74 to keep his team in contention.

As the host to the Tournament Players Championship before moving to the Stadium Course in 1982, the Country Club took its toll on the best on the PGA Tour in early March for five years. Jack Nicklaus and Mark Hayes won the title at one over par. When Lanny Wadkins won at -5 in 1979 he won by five shots. Breaking 80 wasn’t guaranteed, even for the best players in the world.

Playing in the wind in the spring is nothing new for the golfers on the JU and UNF teams and it showed in the first round. The Ospreys have a six shot lead at +5 led by Phillip Knowles’ two-under 70, tied for the low round of the day. The Dolphins sit in second place, six shots behind with Raul Pereda leading the way with a 71.

“It’s a great test this early in the year and that’s why teams keep coming back,” Scott Schroeder, UNF’s golf coach said from the windy Sawgrass clubhouse porch. Schroeder played for the Ospreys under John Brooks, the tournament’s founder and now as the coach has kept the tournament in the upper echelon of collegiate events. The Ospreys have been the de-facto tournament host from the beginning. “Teams come from all over because of the reputation the tournament has and because of the great golf course,” Scott said. “They’ll find out who can handle tough conditions and who can’t.”

Here are the standings after the first round:

  • UNF … 293 … +5
  • JU … 299
  • Oklahoma St. … 300
  • Louisville … 301
  • North Texas … 302
  • UCLA … 303
  • Coastal Carolina … 303
  • Liberty … 305
  • Tennessee … 305
  • UAB … 308
  • East Carolina … 310
  • Furman … 313
  • Tulsa … 315
  • Army West Point … 315
  • UCF … 321

Without the blessing of the Sawgrass CC membership, and the work by their Director of Golf Greg Lecker and local businessman John Hayt, this tournament might have gone elsewhere or disappeared completely. Hayt lived at Queens Harbor when it started and struck up a conversation with some of the players, saying they were “Outstanding young men. And good players!” Hayt has stayed close to the UNF program over the years and Schroeder says it’s more than just money that put Hayt’s name on the tournament.

“He’ll stop by my office, talk to the players, really give them somebody to lean on. It’s mentoring, it’s real. He’s a part of our program.”

The tournament concludes this weekend.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The Players Military Appreciation Day at 17th Hole. Toby Keith concert at 6:30, Tuesday May 10th.

This year’s Military Appreciation Day at The Players will have a new venue, added attractions and a superstar headliner performing. Again, Military Appreciate Day will be on Tuesday of The Players, May 10th, the first day the tournament is welcoming fans. The ceremony will begin at 6, with Toby Keith performing in concert at 6:30. Instead of the traditional location on the back of the clubhouse, this year the ceremony and the concert will be on the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium course famed 17th hole.

“I’m extremely excited to honor the men and women who serve our county by performing at THE PLAYERS Championship,” said Keith, who has performed more than 200 USO shows and entertained more than 250,000 men and women in uniform and their families. In April 2014, Toby Keith was honored with the Spirit of the USO Award. “I have always been a proud supporter of the U.S. Military and can’t wait to rock the stage for our troops and their fans.”

In June 2015, Keith was inducted in to the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in New York City, and he has been honored by the Nashville Songwriters Association International with its Songwriter/Artist of the Decade distinction. He is a three-time BMI Country Songwriter/Artist of the Year and was named the American Country Awards’ Artist of the Decade. His albums have sold more than 40 million copies, ranking him among the top-selling all-genre artists on Billboard’s Top 200 Artists of the Decade. Keith is also Billboard’s No. 1 Country Artist of the Decade and No. 1 Country Songwriter of the Decade.

“We’re thrilled to have Toby Keith kick off tournament week at the most famous hole in golf,” said Michele McManamon, THE PLAYERS 2016 Volunteer Chairman and co-founder of Tuesday’s Charity of the Day, Operation New Uniform. “The Military Appreciation Day Concert is always a fan favorite, and the new location for 2016 allows us to entertain an even bigger crowd in the incredible, wrap-around atmosphere of 16 and 17. Fans will also have access to the great amenities available in that area – including the Food Court and upgraded restrooms – ensuring a true concert-like experience. With a superstar like Toby Keith on stage, we know the Stadium is going to be rocking.”

Prior to tournament week, THE PLAYERS will welcome active duty, Reserve, retired military, veterans, and military spouses to TPC Sawgrass on Saturday, May 7, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Birdies for the Brave® Patriots’ Outpost, to participate in its fourth-annual Military Job Fair, in partnership with the Jacksonville Military Veterans Coalition. The Military Job Fair is free and open to military personnel, veterans and military spouses who are seeking employment. There will be approximately 40 companies on hand, all with open hiring opportunities. Free career counseling and resume-writing assistance will be provided, as well as, information on local educational institutions with veterans’ programs.

Previous PLAYERS Military Veterans Job Fairs have seen attendance of more than 500 military job seekers and 40 companies participating. On Sunday, May 8, THE PLAYERS and Birdies for the Brave® will again partner with Operation Shower to host a group baby shower for 40 military moms-to-be whose spouses are deployed members of the U.S. Navy. Scheduled to be held from 12-2 p.m. in the Patriots’ Outpost, the event will be hosted by Jim and Tabitha Furyk and will feature Operation Shower’s signature Shower-In-A-Box, gifts of high-quality products for the moms and babies that have been provided by sponsors and donors.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Long Drive King At Home In Jacksonville

“It’s a combination of things,” Jeremy Easterly said when asked about hitting the golf ball a long way. But the simplest answer: Swing fast. Easterly was clear about the distinction between “swing hard” and “swing fast” and he’s all about the speed of the swing.

At 6’3″ and 255 pounds, Easterly looks the part of a Long Drive champion and a JSO officer, of which he is both. Having been a golfer for most of his athletic life, Easterly decided to get serious about long drive competitions about the same time he joined JSO.

A low, single-digit handicapper through college, it took the challenge and encouragement of one of his fellow JSO officers to enter his first long drive contest.

“I was humbled pretty quickly,” Easterly said of his 30-some yard loss.

But he found he enjoyed it and could hit it a long way, so he’s worked on it for nearly 15 years, getting the right equipment, some sponsors, good coaching and keeping his fitness level high.

This year, a lot of that paid off when Easterly finished second in the world championships in October in Oklahoma. He found the grid with a 386-yard drive falling to Tim Burke by eight yards. With a wind over the left shoulder for right-handed drivers, hitting the grid with power was one of the keys to success on the night of the Finals. Easterly regularly hits it past 400 yards and explains, now as about a 10-handicapper, the difference between what he does and what they’re doing on the PGA Tour.

“They’re trying to drive it into a 25 yard area and set up their second shot. I’m driving it into about a 60-yard wide area and I’m not worried about the second shot,” he said with a laugh.

In the past decade, Easterly admits his length has grown because of hard work but also because of the information available. GolfTec is one of his sponsors and the “numbers” he gets through their technology of measuring swing speed, launch angle, ball speed and the like, allow him to concentrate on specific things to hit it longer.

“I’m looking at club head speed, but also ‘smash factor’ which is a measure of how efficiently you’re hitting the golf ball,” he explained. “You can swing as fast as you want but if you’re not hitting it in the center of the clubface, you’re not getting what you want out of that shot.”

Easterly uses a “Krank” driver that measures 50-inches long and a “Tornado Tee” that minimizes the friction on the ball.

“You don’t want anything affecting the ball except the club,” he noted.

At 38-years old, Easterly is married, has two kids and has a full-time job on the JSO in Zone Two. That could keep him from pursuing long driving as a career, but there’s not that much money in it, at least for now. The Golf Channel has purchased the organization that puts on the long drive competitions and there’s talk they’ll create a tour where the competitors can make a living.

“I only went to four competitions last year,” Easterly told us. “I won in Tennessee and made it to the Finals in the Worlds but if there’s a Tour, I’ll keep working on my fitness and my game and I’ll try to be on it.”

So how long can he hit it? On this day the GolfTec equipment measured drive after drive right around 400 yards, with a long of 413. If you’re a golfer, Jeremy explained that his miss “is to the right. I normally draw the ball when I’m playing but with this long driver, my miss is to the right.” But when he squares the clubface and gets it going straight or with a little fade or draw, it hangs in the air for 8 or 9 seconds before falling to the ground somewhere over 385 and rolling out.

You’d think a long drive in competition of 441 yards would win going away, but even with his most prodigious competition swing in Mesquite, NV that day, he lost by 25 yards. “It was downwind and I smashed it, but got beat by one measured at nearly 470. I think it would have gone off the grid if it hadn’t one hopped into the mountain!” he said, marveling at the competition.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Get Better: Sea Island Golf Performance Academy

“There’s a fine line between the artistry of golf and the advancements in technology,” Sea Island Golf Performance Center Manger Craig Allan said this week. “We walk very carefully along that fence.”

As the age of technology has made it’s way into golf, spin rates and launch angles are as much of the conversation regarding being a better player as are keeping your head down and finishing your swing.

“I can push a player toward game improvement technology in clubs but the player has to like the club they’re looking at on good days and bad,” Allan explained.

Over the course of about three hours, Allan worked with former NFL quarterback Matt Robinson working through his irons, his wedges and his driver. A variety of iron lengths, shaft flexes and different manufacturers were tried until the combination of statistics and feel were matched up. Using TRACKMAN technology, a Dutch company that has dominated the swing analysis market, Allan was able to measure the launch angle of every shot, the spin rate of the ball, the distance and the height of every swing.

Allan said he works with all levels of students and tries not to rely just on the equipment to make better players. A little instruction goes along with the stats but it’s easy to see the “why” a ball is reacting a certain way by just looking at the different measurements taken with each swing.

“TRACKMAN uses radar to measure all of the different components of distance and accuracy and allows us to change the club to fit a players swing. To a certain point,” he said with a smile.

“It’s amazing to see what your doing wrong, and right, right there on the screen,” Robinson said with amazement. “The numbers don’t lie and it can be a little intimidating. But once you relax and dig into what you’re looking at, it can really help.”

Whether it’s the swing plane, whether a player is swinging inside out, over the top, too steep or shallow, all of it shows up on the computer screen to allow a Master Club Fitter like Allan to dissect the swing and pick the right equipment.

“We have five different TRACKMAN systems so it’s our job to help as many players as we can to be as good as they want to be. This is one of the tools that can really help.”

At about $35,000 per unit, Sea Island, and many clubs and teaching centers have made a very big commitment to the technological side of instruction. A full club fitting costs $375 for the sand wedge through driver session that takes about three hours. Just wedges, or irons or driver is about $125 an hour. Pretty reasonable when it comes to being a better player.

“Some great players have gotten away from the artistry of the game and relying on technology” Allan said about the blend he tries to use in his work. “But it’ll always remain a game that relies on feel and athleticism. We’re just trying to enhance that.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Golf Technology Can Make You a Better Player

“There’s a fine line between the artistry of golf and the advancements in technology,” Sea Island Golf Performance Center Manger Craig Allan said this week. “We walk very carefully along that fence.”

As the age of technology has made it’s way into golf, spin rates and launch angles are as much of the conversation regarding being a better player as are keeping your head down and finishing your swing.

“I can push a player toward game improvement technology in clubs but the player has to like the club they’re looking at on good days and bad,” Allan explained.

Over the course of about three hours, Allan worked with former NFL quarterback Matt Robinson working through his irons, his wedges and his driver. A variety of iron lengths, shaft flexes and different manufacturers were tried until the combination of statistics and feel were matched up. Using TRACKMAN technology, a Dutch company that has dominated the swing analysis market, Allan was able to measure the launch angle of every shot, the spin rate of the ball, the distance and the height of every swing.

Allan said he works with all levels of students and tries not to rely just on the equipment to make better players. A little instruction goes along with the stats but it’s easy to see the “why” a ball is reacting a certain way by just looking at the different measurements taken with each swing.

“TRACKMAN uses radar to measure all of the different components of distance and accuracy and allows us to change the club to fit a players swing. To a certain point,” he said with a smile.

“It’s amazing to see what your doing wrong, and right, right there on the screen,” Robinson said with amazement. “The numbers don’t lie and it can be a little intimidating. But once you relax and dig into what you’re looking at, it can really help.”

Whether it’s the swing plane, whether a player is swinging inside out, over the top, too steep or shallow, all of it shows up on the computer screen to allow a Master Club Fitter like Allan to dissect the swing and pick the right equipment.

“We have five different TRACKMAN systems so it’s our job to help as many players as we can to be as good as they want to be. This is one of the tools that can really help.”

At about $35,000 per unit, Sea Island, and many clubs and teaching centers have made a very big commitment to the technological side of instruction. A full club fitting costs $375 for the sand wedge through driver session that takes about three hours. Just wedges, or irons or driver is about $125 an hour. Pretty reasonable when it comes to being a better player.

“Some great players have gotten away from the artistry of the game and relying on technology” Allan said about the blend he tries to use in his work. “But it’ll always remain a game that relies on feel and athleticism. We’re just trying to enhance that.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Fowler wins Players

It took a finish of historic proportions to crown a winner at the 2015 Players Championship. To start, Rickie Fowler played the last four holes in 5 under par, lower than any player in the history of the tournament at the Stadium Course to finish at -12. There were still plenty of players on the golf course who could tie or beat him with birdies down the stretch. Fowler bogeyed the 10th hole to fall to -6 and probably figured he was out of it. But starting at 13, Rickie played the next six holes in -6 going birdie, par, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie to take the lead in the clubhouse. He signed his scorecard and headed to the back range to stay loose.

Birdieing the 17th hole for the 5th time in the 6 tries this week, Fowler won the Players on the 4th playoff hole, beating Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner by making a 5-footer for the title.

“I had a perfect yardage on 17 today, a choke down gap wedge so it was just a matter of hitting it.”

When I mentioned that he had made 5 birdies in 6 tries this week Fowler grinned and said, “Yeah, like I said, I played 17 pretty good this week.”

Meanwhile, Garcia had played the front side in 33 strokes and had the outright lead until a bogey on 14 left him two back. He then birdied 16 and rolled in a monster putt on 17 to go to -12. He had a chance on 18 but settled for par and a spot in the playoff. And Kisner was two back before birdies on 16 and 17 and a miss on 18 earned him the third spot in 3-hole playoff. It’s the first three-man playoff at the Players since it was across the street at Sawgrass Country Club. In the final year there, 1981, Raymond Floyd parred the first playoff hole, 15, to beat Curtis Strange and Barry Jaeckel for the title.

Garcia parred all three holes in the playoff but was eliminated when Fowler and Kisner birdied 17. “It was another great week at the Players. It’s been a little bit of a funny year for me. I saw a lot of positive things here and I hope to take those with me for the rest of the season.”

Kisner played well and thought he had won it on the 72nd hole. “I thought I made it the first time on 18. But I’ll have my chances. Nobody’s going to give it to you. These guys are great players. I was in one a few weeks ago,(at Hilton Head) so I’ll have my chances.”

There were some low scores earlier in the day in the final round, but the golf course changed as the afternoon wore on, got more difficult and bunched the field. Rory Sabbatini shot 69 to finish at -9 and said it felt like a big time tournament on Sunday afternoon. “I think this is what you expect here. This is what we’re accustomed to, seeing this course really show its teeth.

World Number one Rory McIlroy posted another 70 and admitted he was frustrated again. “It’s just that sort of course. No one is going low. I’m three behind the leader (at the time) and that’s coming off feeling like I’ve left between five and 10 shots out there this week.”

Local resident Billy Horschel said a camera click in his back swing threw him off his game on the second nine. Horschel said it was an older lady and he spoke to her but he couldn’t recover, bogeying 10 and 11. “I took the club back and I was always afraid there was going to be a camera click.” Horschel finished at -7 with birdies on 16 and 17.

Although he never contended this week, Tiger Woods said his game is coming around as he preps for the US Open in June. After an even par 72 in the final round that included 5 birdies and a triple bogey on 14, he says he’s getting better with each round. “Look where I was at on the West Coast and where I’m at now. So let’s just keep progressing, keep putting the pieces together, keep chipping away at it.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

McElroy vs. Speith: Rivalry or Not?

“Not really. As long as I’m one of them, the other can be whoever it is. I don’t mind.”

That was World Number One Rory McElroy’s answer to a question about his budding rivalry with the number two-ranked player and Masters champion Jordan Speith.

Does golf need that kind of rivalry? Arnold vs. Jack. Jack vs. Watson. Tiger vs. Phil.

“Not really, because it’s been, like last year it was Rickie, this year it’s Jordan, might be someone else, could have been Tiger. It’s sort of, you know, there’s been four or five rivalries over the past year. So it’s not, it doesn’t really do anything for me,” McElroy explained amid chuckles and laughter from the assembled media.

So while the top ranked player in the world seems rather blasé about who’s behind him in the world rankings, Speith said it’s not a rivalry yet since McElroy is the clear-cut number one.

“I know that he is as far ahead of me as I am with the next eight guys,” Speith explained. “So with that being said, it’s kind of anybody’s game to get up there and make it interesting with him.”

Speith might be a bit modest with green jacket in hand at 21-years old. But he does have a stated goal of being ranked number one and seems to understand the work that it’ll take to get there.

“I mean he moved even further away from it really being what I would consider a budding rivalry right now. I could certainly appreciate if I could get to where he’s at, but right now I don’t see myself there.”

McElroy, Speith and Jason Day play together in the morning (8:39 on the 10th tee) on Thursday, giving the fans and the television audience a look at both of them together for the first time since Speith’s victory at the Masters.

“I’m very excited about the pairing for Rory and Jason, “I Jordan said this morning. “I’ve really, really enjoyed my time playing with both of them. I’ve been paired with them first couple rounds quite a few times, and in other rounds, too. I really haven’t battled it out on the weekend with either one of them. Two obviously extremely accomplished players and guys I look up to, couple of the nicest guys out here. Yeah, I mean it’s going to be a really, really cool scene out there.”

Meanwhile McElroy said he’s not going to be looking around at Speith or Day when he tees it up on Thursday.

“Honestly, I’m pretty much paying attention to myself out there when I’m just sort of trying to get myself around the golf course, and regardless of who I play with, that doesn’t really change,” he noted. “I’ll notice it because there’s going to be a bit more buzz around the group and a bit more excitement. But to me I’m out there and I’m focusing on my own game and trying to do the best that I can.”

While Jordan was eliminated from the Match Play and headed to Las Vegas to see the Mayweather-Pacquio fight, McElroy stuck around to win the event, then stayed in San Francisco to celebrate his birthday. He then flew to Orlando and arrived at the Stadium Course this afternoon to play nine holes and be ready for tomorrow.

Speith is a big fan of the course, McElroy is lukewarm toward it. Both have great respect for each other.

So what part of the other’s game would each like to have?

“I’d like to hit it as far as he does,” Speith said of McElroy’s prodigious length.

McElroy’s answer to the same question?

“I guess putting. He’s obviously been putting phenomenally well over the past few months. I think that’s been a big thing for him. You look at the putts that’s holed and the putts that he’s holed when he needed to. That’s been a big reason why he’s done so well.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Can Tiger Come Back, Again?

Last week Tiger Woods’ golf swing was almost unrecognizable. He working with a new “swing consultant” on some different positions and swing thoughts but whatever it is, it doesn’t look like the Tiger Woods I know. And to compound his problems, Woods’ back tightened up during a weather delay in San Diego and because his “glutes wouldn’t engage” he withdrew from the tournament.

While he says it’s not related to his back surgery, Tiger also announced on Wednesday that he’s taking a leave of absence from the game until he can play at the level he thinks is suitable. “I want to play at Honda,” Tiger explained via his website, “It’s in my hometown but unless I can compete to win it’s not fair to anybody. I won’t be there unless my game is ‘Tournament Ready.'” Woods didn’t give a timetable for his return but rather said he was just going to “play at Medalist (his club in Hobe Sound) and work on my game.”

Woods recently said he’s looking at some video of his swing from his early days and back all the way to his time as a junior player. Tiger played here as a junior, winning the US Amateur at the Stadium Course in 1994 as a student at Stanford. He was a tall, lanky, supple young player who played more by feel than anything else. He had prodigious power, but his short game and feel for his irons were far superior as a whole to anybody in the field. So going back 20 years to look at his swing could help, unless the equipment changes in the last two decades have been so dramatic that it would take a different swing to get the same results. Consider this: The driver Tiger uses now has a head twice the size but half as light as the one he used in 1995 (A King Cobra). It is also two inches longer and has a graphite shaft. Club technology has made a lot of good players and perhaps has eliminated the possibility of great ones.

This week I talked to World Golf Hall of Fame selectee Mark O’Meara about Tiger’s struggles. O’Meara was famously Tiger’s tutor about things on the PGA Tour, taking him under his wing as they both lived and played at Isleworth in Orlando.

“I know him,” Mark said with a smile, “And he’ll work hard to get back. Some people have said he can’t, which will just fuel him to prove them wrong.”

Admittedly, Woods is a phenomenal athlete but perhaps his commitment to fitness is one of the reasons his body is breaking down so often. The violence in his swing and the torque created is putting a strain on his both that apparently can’t take it at 39 the way it could at 19.

Nick Faldo has pointed that out in the last few weeks, saying that all athletes lose some of those things as they get older. “It’s just a fact of time. He’s going to have to change his swing, back off a bit I think, in order to compete regularly out here and stay healthy.”

As you watch Tiger in person and on television, even without an untrained eye you can see things are “out of sync.” He looks like he’s unfolding at different intervals, trying to find the right timing. O’Meara believes in swing coaches and help, but also said it could be a bit of “over-analysis.”

“You’re an athlete: just hit it!” Mark said at the end of the conversation. “Stop thinking about where the bottom is and what the swing plane might be and hit it.”

I do believe Tiger will be back and will be competitive again. He’s too good of an athlete and has just enough athletic arrogance to make that happen. But I also believe it’ll take a combination of all of the above for him to be successful. He’ll have to take Faldo’s advice and back off a bit. He’ll have to listen to O’Meara and go back to some feel instead of analysis. And I think he’ll have to modify his game for the modern equipment.

Does that lead to wins and possibly Majors? One thing his now going up against is a deep field of players who have no fear, particularly of him, and equipment that has brought a lot of “contenders” into the picture.

He’ll have to be better than ever.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Kaymer Wins Players: Wins Fans Too

Expecting a shootout between Germany’s Martin Kaymer and the USA’s PGA Tour wunderkind Jordan Spieth, fans surrounded the first hole from tee to green, five deep when the two approached for their 2:35 tee time. Kaymer ripped it 310 yards down the middle. Spieth hit it in the right rough. A chink in the armor? You might have thought so but actually Spieth took the lead with a birdie on 4 to go to -13. And that was it. Kaymer inherited a share of the lead after Speith bogeyed 8 and then took the lead for good at nine with a birdie out of the bunker while Spieth’s second shot in the rough forced him to settle for par.

Kaymer had it to 15 under before play was suspended while he was playing the 14th hole forcing a 91-minute delay because of lightning. That changed the fabric of the end of the tournament, with Kaymer and Spieth, along with Sergio Garcia and Francisco Molinari among the contenders finishing in front of just a smattering of fans.

The golf course yielded some low scores among those not contending. Former champ K.J. Choi shot a 65 and finished the tournament at -7. Rory McIlroy’s crazy experiences here at The Players continued, shooting a 66 on the final day to finish at -9. McIlroy shot 31 on the back, birdieing 16, 17 and 18 to continue his great play at the Stadium course on holes with double digits. “Overall it looks like another back door top 10 but it’s getting close. I’m playing solid, things are headed in the right direction.” McIlroy played the back nine in 17 under this week, but 8 over on the front hurt his chances. “I feel very comfortable on the back nine here; and just played the front nine a little better (today) and ended up shooting a lower score.”

The leading money winner on tour, Jimmy Walker opened on Thursday with a 75 and was wondering if he’d make the cut or not when he teed off Friday. Instead, Walker shot 65 on the final day for a top ten finish, including an eagle on eleven. “I was running and gunning,” he said after his round. Make a couple of birdies, and if the wind picks up and the storm starts to maybe come in, you never know what could happen.” As the top ranked player, Walker is having some new experiences at tournaments and he said it’s making him change his game a bit. “It makes me feel like I need to keep the pedal down. Sure would be good to be number one at the end of September so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

After the rain delay, Kaymer certainly made it interesting, making double bogey from the left trees on 15 and taking a one-shot lead to the final three holes. A par on 16 didn’t give him much cushion over Furyk who was doing interviews in the rain while waiting to see what might happen.

“I’ve struggled at this golf course,” Furyk told us while after making a 2 ½ foot putt to finish at 66. My results haven’t been nearly as good as I would have liked. It’s fun to play well in front of friends and family.”

Meanwhile, Kaymer hit the strangest shot on 17, just clearing the bunker and spinning back to the high rough in the front of the green. A short chip left him with a long par putt that he poured right in the middle of the cup to maintain a one shot lead and continue the drama. “It was hard to read because it was getting a little dark,” he said afterwards. “But it went in and it’s on the card so I’m happy.”

Two shots on 18 put Kaymer on the front of the green with just under 50 feet to the hole. Two putts would win the title for him and Kaymer thought back to the putt he made to win the Ryder Cup last year. “I was walking up there thinking that one of the best players in the world should be able to make it in two putts to win.” He admitted the just over 3 footer he had left was no easy roll for the victory. “It was left to right and downhill and I was thinking, ‘Just go in’ and it did.”

Kaymer was incredibly gracious in the awards ceremony, thanking the fans for being “fair, even though I was playing an American the last couple of days.” He admitted the opening round 63 put a lot of pressure on him for the rest of the week. But said playing with Jordan Spieth really helped him. “He’s a good guy, and a really good player for someone so young. You have a great player to watch for a lot of years to come.”

“When you shoot that low score on Thursday, everybody expects you to win,” Kaymer explained. “You expect to finish high, there’s just a lot of pressure.”

Interestingly enough, Kaymer was 12 under through 36 holes in this year’s Players, and won at -13 under, the fourth consecutive year that score was good enough to win.

He also thanked the volunteers and reminded everybody to be nice to their mom, not just on Mothers Day. He’s a good player, and proved over the last 4 days he’s a pretty good guy too.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The Players: First Round Update

As predicted, low scores were the rule of the day among the morning players in the first round of The Players. Russell Henley shot 65, seven under par while, eight players, including Lee Westwood, Gary Woodland, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia are at -5.

“It’s playing a little softer,” Woodland said after his round. “The key out here is to, keep the momentum going, and avoid the big number.” Woodland also changed a bit of his strategy this week as well. “I only hit 4 drivers today. Callaway strengthened my 3-wood and that seems to be working.”

There are a lot of different experiences to be had at the Stadium Course during the tournament. Henley had nine birdies today, but double bogeyed the 7th. No bogies on his card. Lee Westwood didn’t play any holes over par today, making five birdies enroute to his 67. Ernie Els shot 68 with three bogies, an eagle (on 4) and three birdies, the best a chip in on 14.”

“I’m never comfortable here,” Else explained immediately after his round. “I tried to come in on Thursday morning but I had an early tee time,” he joked, adding that he didn’t arrive until Wednesday afternoon. “The tee boxes here all point you to the right. I have to pick my spot. Pete Dye is a genius but he is a sinister man.”

Jordan Spieth’s 67 in the morning included five birdies for his first time seeing the Stadium Course for this tournament. He’s played here before in junior golf and leaned on some of that experience. “I’ve played enough PGA Tour courses to change my thinking to pick my lines and be a little safer,” he said after his round. “It’s the same here. You just have to commit to the shot.”

Scott Stallings was a mid-morning starter and said he “thought” his way to a 67. “You have to pick your shots here the take a big number out of play,” he explained right behind the 18th green. “Every hole is a birdie opportunity but every one is also a double waiting to happen. You try and eliminate that.”

Justin Rose played the par 5’s in one-over today, leading him to think there could be a lower score than his 67 waiting tomorrow. “I’ve been working on a lot of things, hitting it great on the range for a while. I’m hoping it’s all coming together.”

Among the afternoon players, Bill Haas (-4 through 8) John Huh (-3 through 8) and former champion Tim Clark (-3 through 9) are moving up the leaderboard.

Phil Mickelson shot 75 today, Rory McIlroy 70 and Adam Scott is one under through 7.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Players 2014: Will The Greens Be Up To Par?

Tee times for the first two rounds are out fo the 2014 Players. They’ll play in threesomes and start at 7:15 as expected, going off the first and the tenth tee. If you’re a morning player on Thursday, you go in the afternoon on Friday and vice versa.

In the morning on Thursday, last week’s winner J.B. Holmes goes off the 10th tee at 7:47 with Ken Duke and Rory Sabbatini. Stuart Appleby is at the same time going off one. A contender last week, Martin Flores is in the first group off of #1 with Lee Westwood and Brendon de Jonge.

Patrick Reed is playing with Jason Dufner and Luke Donald at 8?08 off #10, the start of four good groups in a row going off the back. Zach Johnson, Jordan Speith and Graeme McDowell at art 8:18, the Harris English, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy at 8;29 followed by Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia at 8:39.

Billy Horschel is a morning player on Thursday at 8:18 at number one. K.J. Choi is at 7:57 on #1 and Ernie Else is at 8:39 on number one.

The afternoon rounds start at 12:25. Angel Cabrera goes off number 1 at 1:07. Keegan Bradley in the next group at 1:18 with Jonas Blixt and Webb Simpson. Jim Furyk Henrick Stenson and Brandt Snedeker are at 1;28 and then Rickey Fowler, Adam Scott and Steve Stricker at 1:39. They’re followed by Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker at 1;49. Matt Every is at 1:39, Ian Poulter at 1:49 and Russell Knox at 2:21.

Phil Mickelson played a practice round this morning with Ricky Fowler and Dustin Johnson. They all switched clubs on 17, with Fowler and Johnson playing Mickelson’s left-handed irons. All three had nice swings from the other side, a testament to their athletic prowess. Fowler actually knocked one on the green. Mickelson does just about everything else right-handed, so he looked good from that side of the ball as well. Mickelson had his press conference this afternoon and laid out the nuances of the Stadium Course. His approach to 17 will be “middle of the green. I think you make more birdies that way,” he said about the island green. Phil says the course is a bit softer than in past years so he’ll keep driver in the bag and hit it a lot. “I think we’ll see some low scoring.” Mickelson is toying with two putters this week, and probably will play “the blade” after working with it on Monday.

Bubba Watson played in the morning as well. He said he likes to look at “the ground, how it lays out, and it’s difficult here because the fairway and the rough seem to blend together when you’re looking from the tee.” Watson doesn’t like to aim at trees, so that’s his reason for never seeming to drive the ball well here. Watson laughed when he was reminded that if he wins here he could move to #1 in the world. “Let’s remember that my best finish here is 37th. We probably don’t need to worry about that.” But it was interesting that his assessment of the rankings is that they’re flawed. Phil Mickelson has never been the top ranked player and Watson doesn’t see how that’s possible. “I played against Tiger when he was at his very best,” Mickelson reminded everybody. Watson said LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been in contact with him since his Masters win.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem held his annual “State of the Players” media session, limiting his comments to the Players. He noted that the television broadcast of The Players this year could reach a billion people, being broadcast in 230 countries. Regarding the greens, Finchem sais they’re going to replant the Stadium Course with a strain of grass called TifEagle after the 2015 tournament. The Tour has struggled getting the greens right since moving to May in 2007 and they now believe giving a little more room on the greens, changing them slightly and going with the new grass could be the answer.

Finchem didn’t seem concerned that the NFL draft was rescheduled for this week. He joked that if “Shad would share with me who the Jags were going to draft in the first round, I might watch that.” Finchem also downplayed Tiger Woods’ absence, saying “it’s not the first time we haven’t had Tiger.

As far as The Players staying in May, the Commissioner said he likes the date and hopes to make it work. But if they keep having what he called “these weather related issues, we’ll re-think the date.”

Finchem has been Commissioner for 20 years and recently named Jay Monahan as a Deputy Commissioner, kind of a Commissioner in waiting role. Monahan was the Executive Director of The Players in the past and has fulfilled a variety of roles with the Tour, putting him in a position to become Commissioner. When? Finchem says he’ll be around for a while and is looking forward to finishing his tenure.