PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — If the rains that soaked the first three days at the Players Championship were historic, the winds that followed them were nothing short of biblical.
There are lots of ways to gauge the currents that enveloped the Players Championship on Saturday afternoon. The most accurate measurement comes from the National Weather Service, which says the breeze is blowing a stiff 26 mph, with gusts as high as 40 mph. And then there is the leaderboard, which shows half of the field with scores over par … and the other half still waiting to tee off. But perhaps the best measurement of the wind at TPC Sawgrass can be recorded in decibels.
At the 18th green shortly after noon local time, the scene was deafening. Thousands of fans streamed into the tournament gates and funneled into the area surrounding the putting surface, hoping to snag a peek at one of two star-studded groups as they closed their first rounds.
One by one, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Scottie Scheffler, Xander Schauffele and Rory McIlroy made their way to the 18th green. It was a moment ripe for a quintessential Players Championship eruption — the kind that’s been missing from TPC Sawgrass over the tournament’s soggy first three days.
And maybe we got one. Nobody seated around the green was quite sure. They could hardly hear anything over the flags.
The collective well wishes of thousands were muted by the drone of banners, a few dozen of them, attached to the top of the 18th green’s hospitality seating. Together, the flags whirred like jet engines in the wind, ripping their way to enormous volumes. On the 18th, the flags were so loud, spectators spoke in muffled screams even as stars putted some 20 feet away.
On any other Players Championship Saturday, their yells would have been grounds for immediate removal. On this Players Championship Saturday, they went unheard by the tournament marshal standing a few feet away.
The scene was quieter down by the tee box, but the chaos was no less noticeable. Squalls raced along the water of the lake separating the 18th and 9th holes. And were those whitecaps? Justin Thomas wasn’t sure, but he earned a closer look when the wind skipped his drive off the fairway and into the water.
Back behind the island green 17th, the crowds drifted into survival mode. After just one tee shot wound up in the water on Thursday afternoon, the first four in a row missed the green entirely on Saturday morning. Those with the misfortune of playing the hole faced the delightful challenge of properly measuring a high-lofted iron or wedge into a gale-force, then convincing their ball to stop on the green if it ever arrived.
By 1 p.m., the masses greeted every attempt that remained on the putting service with raucous applause. Those who missed earned sympathy.
Michael Thompson’s first tee shot on the 17th never stood a chance. A vicious gust scooped it from the tee box and carried it an easy 15 yards right of the flagstick. He knocked his approach from the drop zone to 60 feet and escaped a few minutes later with only a double-bogey. The crowd cheered.
Emiliano Grillo hit two straight into the drink before finally resting his approach against the small tuft of grass on the collar. Three putts later, he’d made a quadruple-bogey seven. The crowd cheered again. As Grillo escaped up the tunnel into the 18th tee, he flashed a perplexed grin.
But it wasn’t all bad. The benefit of playing with a howling wind is that, on occasion, the wind helps.
Like on the other side of a stanchion a hundred feet away from the 17th, where on Saturday, you could find a completely different golf course.
From that vantage point, you could find the fairway on No. 16, where helping winds transformed the typically toothy par-5 into one of the easiest holes on the golf course.
Just ask Kevin Kisner, whose drive on the 16th traveled 43 yards further on Saturday than it did during his opening round on Thursday. Kisner, who ranks 154th on PGA Tour with an average driving distance of 293 yards, made a tidy birdie after his 324-yard poke on the 16th.
Through the early portion of play on Saturday, the 16th was the easiest hole on the course by a significant margin, yielding 98 birdies to 71 pars and only 12 bogeys. The two holes that came after it ranked as the hardest.
Smiles emanated from all corners of the golf course on Saturday, even as pros blasted 7-iron approaches over the 532-yard 16th, then shorted 6-irons into the 155-yard 3rd. Other than the wind, there wasn’t much of a rhyme or reason to any of it. And after three days of rain, there didn’t have to be.
The first round at the Players was completed (mercifully) at 2:01 p.m. local time on Saturday afternoon, some 54 hours and 16 minutes after it first began. More than five inches of rain fell during that time, leaving TPC Sawgrass in a sopping state of disarray.
But by the time the second round got rolling, the rain was but a distant memory. The sun was shining, the players were playing, and the flags were screaming.