A walk around TPC Sawgrass on what would been the Players Championship third round

March 15, 2020

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It was Saturday afternoon, getting on 5, on a perfect late-winter day here. Shiny grass everywhere and a helping wind on 17, just the thing you don’t want on that devil of a par-3. Not that it mattered. Had it been a normal Saturday, Rickie Fowler and C.T. Pan and the other leaders would be heading this way right about now.

But of course, they were not. There were no tee markers on the tee box, just a couple of folding chairs, seemingly for no good reason. There were no fans on the hill behind the tee, no flagstick in the green, no sounds of any sort, except for the workmen and the engines of their trucks. They were there to disassemble, but you could have mistook them for gravediggers. TPC Sawgrass — the STADIUM COURSE — was closed for business.

It’s always the same. You take it for granted, whatever it might be, then discover the folly of your ways when it’s gone. Somebody ate a bad piece of chicken in Wuhan, or whatever, and the next thing you know your weekend in mid-March looks completely different. Shouldn’t Pat Reed be coming to 17 right about now?

How you think they’ll treat him?

Whatever we were getting so worked up about (name your subject) seems so distant now. Quaint, almost. The enemy is now undercover. Not just the virus, but that of course. Our enemy now is uncertainty, like when you’re driving on dirt roads in Canada, in the rain, trying to find the house without a map or working phone. We’re keeping the faith because that’s what makes sense, right? And we’re washing our hands.

So no Players, no Masters, no Dinah Shore. No after-the-birdie fives, no tees as toothpicks. No shared beers.

The media room at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday.
The media room at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday.
Michael Bamberger

The rough was taking a sunbath on Saturday afternoon at Sawgrass. The players would have complained, because it was getting thicker by the minute and complaining is their birthright. Elsewhere, 18 white Chevy fans sat on a field collecting dust, baking, reserved for volunteers who were at home, practicing the latest craze, social distancing. There would be no shuttling today.

The driving range was empty. The interview tent, the grandstands on 18, the player parking lot: empty. Saturday at the Players, in this odd year.

You — if not actually you, someone you know — used to kick the Players, just for the sport of it. Nothing violent, just a tap, like you were kicking a deflated soccer ball with your inside right while wearing tennis shoes. A good event, to be sure, but man, did its bosses try too hard. Plus, that gaudy clubhouse. You’ll retire that whole bit, if you can hold on to your 3/14/20 mindset. That’s a big if. We’re not good at that; nobody is good at that. We fall back to who we were and what we know, or what we think we know.

But what is this feeling washing over me as I walk the back nine in warmth that’s right on the edge of sticky? (The fans, most of them, would have been wearing shorts, for sure. The players would have been bare-armed and spotless, because they’re always bare-armed and spotless on these perfect weekends.) Is it … nostalgia?

Here I am at 10, just last year, talking to Jim Thorpe for an hour, who was out there in the name of his buddy Duf, Jason Dufner. “When I got in my first Masters,” he said that day, “I thought, ‘I wish I could give my spot to Charlie Sifford and Pete Brown.’ ” The black players of Thorpe’s era have a love-hate relationship with that tournament, and a loving relationship for each other. When Calvin Peete won here in 1985, that was big.

I sat in a TV tower next to Steve Melnyk that year, a half-assed caddie getting a week’s work as a CBS spotter, and made friends that I have to this day.

Your mind floats. No people, no deadline game story, no anything pressing. It’s actually kind of nice. Here I am on the sixth hole, in 2018, watching Rickie Fowler peer at a ball in a tree, trying to figure out, through a binoculars, if it’s his. What guys will do to save a shot.

Here’s Greg Norman, in ’94, marching up 18, leading with that beak nose and the brim of his straw hat. Fuzzy played as well as a man can play and could not make it close. I can’t remember what he said to the scrum, but it was economical and funny and it looked good in the next day’s paper. He made short putts the way you should make short putts, with speed.

TPC Sawgrass on the Saturday of what should have been the third round of the Players.
TPC Sawgrass on the Saturday of what should have been the third round of the Players.
Michael Bamberger

There was a Davis Love entrance on one side of the course, marked by two Lexus cars. Quiet and still. There was a Steve Elkington entrance on the other side of the course. Quiet and still. Love won at Sawgrass in 1992 and 2003. Elkington won in ’91 and ’97. Last year, Rory McIlroy won. There will be an empty slot on the trophy for 2020, but next year at this time, golf will be played again for cash and prizes. You have to believe that. It’s the flagship event of the PGA Tour, for crying out loud! If there were five majors (but there aren’t) this would be fifth.

The Sawgrass Marriott was quiet on Saturday night. Not empty, but quiet. Poppy’s Italiano, one of my Players-week standbys, did not have its customary wait. Pat Perez was not loading up on beer at the Shell station on A1A, Garry Smits of the Jacksonville paper was not knocking out a game story and a sidebar on deadline in the press building, Tiger was not limping through the locker room, blinders and red-ass on.

One of my favorite images in sportswriting comes from William Finnegan, writing about his main hobby, surfing, in The New Yorker in 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.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com

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