PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Was that a roar off in the distance at TPC Sawgrass? It sure could’ve been.
The third round of the Players Championship was wrapping up down in that direction, and the leaders were taking advantage of calm conditions. In theory, the back nine was rife with birdie opportunities. Did Anirban Lahiri extend his lead? Or was it Justin Thomas riding on a surge of momentum?
Oh wait, no. That wasn’t a roar. It was a leafblower.
Monday morning was a strange time to be on the Stadium Course. For just the eighth time ever and the first time since 2005, the Players is destined for a Monday finish. Other than the maintenance team, nobody expected to be here when the week began. And other than the maintenance team and a few thousand golf diehards, nobody was here on Monday.
But those made for prime conditions to take a morning stroll through the Stadium Course, which revealed what golf fans can expect when, at long last, the week comes to a (muted) end come Monday evening.
1. It’s silent.
When legendary course architect Pete Dye first walked the ground that is now TPC Sawgrass, he envisioned the first true “stadium” golf course — a venue built for professional events, and with spectators in mind. Dye’s sketches for the course included large, elevated surfaces around many greens and tee boxes so as to improve sightlines, and space between holes to allow for the construction of non-prohibitive grandstands. These are key design elements during tournament week, allowing fans to seamlessly weave between key holes and engendering some of the tournament’s trademark noise.
On Monday morning, though, the Stadium Course gave a glimpse of how it plays the remaining 361 days of the year. There was silence, and a lot of it, but that added a layer of fun. How often can you be the only spectator following a PGA Tour player on the final day of a tournament?
2) It’s empty.
With the rest of the Players’ 250,000 fans back at work and replaced by only a few thousand Monday diehards, large chunks of the course were completely empty. As some groups made their way down the back nine, they were surrounded only by volunteers, who also appeared fewer in number on Monday.
At one point, an NBC flatbed with a camera loaded on the back drove unabated down the thoroughfare between the 18th green and 11th tee box. During the weekend, that same thoroughfare was a walking hazard because of the number of fans jammed into it.
3. It’s still … for now.
Sawgrass wasn’t just quiet on Monday morning, it was calm.
On Monday morning, the wind that nearly blew away the tournament on Saturday hushed to a whisper. Conditions cooperated for just the second time all week (the first in the moments following Thursday’s first line of thunderstorms).
But the friendly skies may not last. Winds are expected to blow in from the east this afternoon, staying well below Saturday’s 40 mph gusts but stiffening the test for the leaders coming down one of the sport’s best closing stretches.
4. It’s easier … for now.
Players responded to Monday’s friendlier conditions in kind, firing off a series of birdies in the early hours. On the typically terrifying 18th, Will Zalatoris and Doug Ghim blasted drives over the water, taking aggressive lines well down the fairway.
At most other points this week, weather would have forced both players to take safer lines down the right side. Instead both players were rewarded with routine approach shots and, from just past the hole, they each rolled inputts for birdie. Easy. Breezy. Clinical.
If the wind holds, don’t be surprised to see a handful of players rival Sebastian Munoz’s Monday-morning 65 in the afternoon session.
5. It’s all (finally) starting to take shape
When play was suspended late Sunday evening, the tournament picture was still murky. Anirban Lahiri had leapt into the lead and the threesome of Burns, Hoge and Varner held steady. But strange as it sounds, by the time Sunday ended, it was difficult to figure out where everyone else fit in.
By noon on Monday, there was a much clearer answer. At the 54-hole mark, it’s still Lahiri (-9) on top, but behind him Doug Ghim, Paul Casey, Sam Burns and Cam Smith all seem like logical fits for a final-round charge. As for the dark horses, keep an eye out for Shane Lowry (-6), Will Zalatoris (-6), Viktor Hovland (-5) and Patrick Reed (-5). Further back, reigning champ Justin Thomas (-4) is hoping for a Monday miracle.