At this semi-normal Players Championship, what a difference a year makes

The 17th hole on the Stadium Course in the first round of the 2021 Players.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Let’s take a trip down Memory Lane, shall we? Join us as we turn back the calendar one year, to mid-March, 2020, PVB, Fla.

You, understandably: Must we?

Well, no. But things are way better.

Last year, on the Wednesday of the Players, I wrapped up a chat with Annika Sorenstam with . . . a handshake. Read her face (not happy), saw a jug of Purell out of the corner of my eye, retrieved it, gave her two sprits and swore not to make that mistake again.

tpc sawgrass no. 17
One year later: Inside the surreal week at TPC Sawgrass when golf shut down
By: Zephyr Melton

On Thursday, two masked men stood beside the driving range at the Stadium Course here and concluded a visit with . . . a handshake. This time, I was on the receiving end of it. (A proffered hand is hard to ignore.) It was my first outside-the-bubble handshake in a year. It was not CDC-sanctioned. Still, it felt — what’s the best way to say this? — semi-normal.

Last year, on what would have been the Saturday of the Players, I went on a self-guided tour of the course. There was a helping wind on 17 and not a soul on it. This year, at any given time, there were three players and three caddies on the tee, and several hundred fans on the hillside behind it, all of them drenched in late-winter sunshine.

Empty driving range. Semi-crowded driving range. Empty press tent. Semi-populated press tent. Empty parking lots. Crowded parking lots.

This is from a GOLF.com report from last year, Saturday of the canceled Players:

Thursday brought mayhem to No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass.
‘It doesn’t add up’: Players question green conditions after water balls at 17
By: Dylan Dethier

One of my favorite images in sportswriting comes from William Finnegan, writing about his main hobby, surfing, in The New Yorkerin 1992. A photographer captures him coming out of a barrel. The snap he wishes for was taken a moment later: “the wave alone, with the knowledge that I am in there.”

Soul surfing is a lonely sport. What makes tournament golf tournament golf is the players in their caldron, fans and TV cameras looking down at them, rooting for them, judging them, trying to pick up a thing or two from them. The snaps, mental and otherwise, of 17 from Saturday, they are the opposite of Finnegan’s wave-disappearing act. His is the essence of sport. The player in his field. That lonely green blanket I was looking at was just the consequence of freakish conditions that robbed a field of its sport.

Next year will be different.

Next year is now. Kevin Na made an 8 on 17, en route to an 81. A bad score, but a nice problem to have. Steve Stricker, 54, the Ryder Cup captain and the last man in the field, made a 2 on 17, and shot 33 for his first nine holes. He won’t keep doing that, or will he? A nice thing to contemplate.

A year ago, Rory McIlroy said, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” He wasn’t talking about his golf game. (He made an 8 on Thursday and shot 79.) He was talking about a mysterious pandemic that was washing across the world. Time proved him to be correct. By Saturday, he was home in South Florida.

This year, on Saturday of the Players, McIlroy hopes to be playing. He may or may not, but others will. Fans will watch, drink beer, cheer lustily through their masks. Caddies will caddie, officials will officiate, sportswriters will sports-write. This year’s Saturday will be better than last year’s Saturday. Next year’s Saturday will be better yet. That’s the bold prediction from here.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com.

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.