Players 2016: Great Scores Means We’ll Get a Great Winner

May 14, 2016

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.—There must have been a press release I missed. When did the PGA Tour move the Players to an executive course?

It was one thing yesterday when Jason Day hit all 18 greens and shot a relatively routine 63 to tie the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course record. He is the No. 1 player in the world, after all.

But Friday, even Colt Knost dialed up 63 — with a bogey on the last. Knost, a former U.S. Amateur champion, is a good player, too, but he’s No. 184 in the world. You don’t expect him to outduel Day over 72 holes, no matter how easy the Stadium’s Pitch & Putt Course is playing.

Rory McIlroy fumbled a 62 on the goal line Friday morning, too. He’d made seven birdies and an eagle and had a little dump-wedge to the par-5 9th green and needed a cupcake birdie for 62. He mis-hit the next shot and turned it into a bogey for 64 instead.

So the TPC at Cupcake Cove was there for the taking before storms delayed play Friday afternoon, causing the second round to conclude Saturday morning.

There will be hysteria and alarms about the low scores here. Let me tell you what’s wrong the Stadium Course: nothing.

These guys are good, plain and simple. The Tour moved the event from March to May to get firmer and faster conditions. On that front, the date change is hugely successful. The slick conditions this week mean that practically any drive hit in the fairways rolls out a long ways and a majority of holes are mere wedge-shot approaches.

Because of the heat, the greens need to be watered to avoid drying out. Give a Tour field receptive greens on any course and they will rip it apart. See most PGA Championships, for instance, notably the last one at Whistling Straits.

Purists always complain about the United States Golf Association’s micro-management of the U.S. Open course while annually praising the Royal & Ancient Golf Club for its laissez-faire setups of the British Opens. The R&A lets the weather dictate the conditions. If it’s a dry spring, the rough is sparse and short. If it’s a wet spring, the rough is thick and deep.

So why rip the Tour for taking a page from the R&A’s manual? Florida is just crawling out of a warm spell and a drought. Those conditions, plus an unusual lack of wind for two days, have led to crazy-low scoring at Sawgrass.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyone who says that low scores ruin a tournament is wrong.

Was it a bad tournament when Greg Norman shot 24-under and won the Players? Was it a crappy Masters when Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods won it at 18-under? Or when Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd shot 17-under at Augusta?

How about when Tiger Woods won by 15 in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach? Was that a disgrace?

Last August, did Day and Spieth spoil the PGA Championship when they shot 20-under and 17-under, respectively?

Nah. It was great. This thinking may be counterintuitive, which means the USGA will never understand it, but the lower the score in a major or on a great course, the better the winner. You can look it up. When birdies are slightly more possible, it’s the greatest players who rack up more of them.

And when scores are high in majors or on a great course because the layout is so difficult that nobody can make birdies except almost by accident, you are far more likely to get unusual winners: Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Scott Simpson, Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson, Michael Campbell, Andy North.

Grow thick rough, negate birdies, turn a major into a virtual scrambling contest and North, a consummate scrambler and lag-putter, would beat you like a drum. It’s not a shock that North won two Opens. The way the USGA prepped courses with stupid-deep rough in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s a shock he didn’t win five of them.

So here we are on the weekend at the Players, where barbs are flying about this event looking more like putt-putt (guilty!) or a Bob Hope Classic.

Yes, scores are low. Guys like Knost can shoot 63, or William McGirt can shoot 65, on any given day.

And guys like Day and Rory McIlroy can shoot 63 and 64 all day, every day.

The Players will be just fine this weekend. The low scores mean it’s going to get a great winner.