Was TPC Sawgrass an unfair test on Saturday? The players don’t think so

Brooks Koepka battled to a 9-over 81 on Saturday.

TPC Sawgrass played tough on Saturday. Was it too tough?

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — You’d have forgiven Brooks Koepka if he’d answered otherwise.

Koepka was coming off a Saturday in which he’d played 20 holes of golf and scored 11 over par. His day began at No. 17, where he hit 8-iron into a 30 mph wind, found the water and made double bogey. Two hours later he returned to No. 17, this time in his second round. He hit it flush, caught a gust and came up well short of the green. Triple bogey. Three hours after that he’d signed for a second-round 81, a missed cut and a name near the bottom of the leaderboard.

So when Koepka — who, to his credit, gamely took post-round questions from reporters — was asked if he thought TPC Sawgrass played unfair, you’d have understood if he thought it did.

“No, it was just extremely hard,” he said. “Yeah, I felt like I got some bad breaks along with not playing well. Kind of one of those things for me.”

His sentiments seemed to echo the general feelings among beleaguered Tour pros coming off the course at the Players Championship. Tough but fair. Brutal but reasonable. Unfortunate but not unplayable. The remarks were a marked contrast to last week’s final round at Bay Hill, which some detractors thought had crossed the line in terms of fairly rewarding well-played shots.

It’s tough to say how many critics there were of the decision to play in wild wind on Saturday afternoon; perhaps there was just one with a megaphone. Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee tweeted early in the round that they shouldn’t be on the course.

“They should stop play. The 17th hole is unplayable,” he wrote. He added that while he’s generally a fan of No. 17, its flaws as a hole would be on display in Saturday’s conditions.

But a flawed 17th hole doesn’t mean you can further delay an extremely delayed tournament. Besides, the entire point of the island green is that golfers will miss it. On Saturday, they certainly did.

“Problem is, it is perhaps one of, if not the most lopsided disadvantage restart I’ve ever seen,” he wrote.

On that front, he had a point. Just one golfer found the water on Thursday and just three more on Friday for a grand total of four water balls across 122 players. The next 21 golfers through, by comparison, combined for 10 splashes. Then those same golfers finished their first rounds and headed back out into the worst weather of the week. It wasn’t fair — but then, it never is. Of the pros who spoke to reporters post-round, all were weary but none were disgruntled.

“I thought they were fairly easy,” deadpanned Kevin Kisner, golf’s deadpan king, when asked about the conditions. “I can’t believe that only one guy shot under par so far. Guys must really be struggling with their games this week.”

He felt like the course stayed just on the correct side of fair. “It is what it is. It’s part of Mother Nature. We all deal with it every week,” he added.

Keegan Bradley came off shaking his head. “Man, I’ll tell you, that 17 and 18 are playing hard. I don’t know if I’ve ever played two holes as hard as that. But I think [the Tour] did a great job.”

“It was fine,” said Rory McIlroy, asked about the conditions. “The ball was staying. I mean, very tough conditions, but it was fair.”

Bubba Watson managed the mayhem as well as anyone, navigating Sawgrass to a second-round 68. “The golf course was never to the edge,” he said. “The balls were never rolling on the greens. It’s just hard, right?”

Yes, it was hard. Koepka was hardly the only star to post a big number; Xander Schauffele shot 78, Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose each shot 79 and Lee Westwood shot 80. Pros finished their rounds and were eager to share just how wild some of their yardages were relative to normal. Watson finished his day with a 151-yard 5-iron. Justin Thomas was most proud of a carved 6-iron from 136. McIlroy hit a 7-iron that went 123 yards.

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“My 7-iron goes between 185 and 190. So, playing 60 yards of wind,” he said.

Koepka’s 8-irons on 16 and 17 highlighted the difference between downwind and into the wind perhaps best of all.

“On 16 I hit 8-iron, it flew 205 yards,” he said. “On 17 I hit it 105.”

But those are the curiosities of golf in tough conditions — all of which, we should add, made for delightful viewing. Koepka acknowledged that on a links course the strategy would have been far different; players could utilize the ground game to neutralize the wind. No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass is perhaps the least linksy hole on the planet. There’s no ground game. No bailout. There’s dry land and there’s water. And on Saturday, there was wind, too.

Perhaps the zen was the key to success. “Days like today, I don’t mind,” said Dustin Johnson, golf’s ultimate zen master. “They’re really tough, but I like the tough conditions.”

One thing that went largely unsaid: Now they hope the rest of the field gets a taste of TPC’s tough-golf medicine.

Kisner said it, though.

“I hope it blows like this in the morning and they freeze their butts off,” he concluded. “Since they’ve been sitting at home all day watching us in the carnage.”

It would only be fair if they suffered through even more of the same.

Dylan Dethier

Dylan Dethier

Golf.com Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com. The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.