Outrageous. Shameful. Shocking.
That's what PGA Tour players were calling the course setup at TPC Sawgrass for the third round of the Players Championship Saturday.
On a day that could've provided the great theatre of Rory McIlroy and others trying to run down Jason Day in his attempt to break the tournament 72-hole record, the golf course became the story. Gusting winds and lightning-quick greens caused players to shift from an offensive, attacking mentality that provided a birdie barrage through the first two rounds to a hold-on-for-dear-life approach. A dip in performance predictably followed. There were four times as many players to fire around of 78 or worse (24) as there were to break par (6) on Saturday.
What went wrong? How did it happen?
Sawgrass' greens caused carnage the Tour hasn't seen in years. And they were probably unfair.
Let's start with this: On a given day, everyone in the field has to play the same golf course. With the caveat that the early side of the draw can sometimes get slightly better conditions, things that suck generally suck for everyone. Sure, fine, sure. Everyone has to play it. Whatever.
There also becomes a point where a golf course is no longer a test of golf but a stupid exercise in futility. That's what the simple exercise of putting became on Saturday for the world's best players. After an opening two rounds where the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was torn up to the tune of the 36-hole scoring record by Day, tournament directors & greenskeepers turned up the course from rookie-level to tricked-out mini-golf kinds of stuff.
Nice to see the @pgatour got out their windmills and clown mouths today!— Scott Piercy (@ScottPiercyPGA) May 14, 2016
Gusting winds and the choice to turn Sawgrass' notoriously small and sloping greens into linoleum kitchen floors led to a scoring disaster. Players were still able to be aggressive in approaching the still supple and receptive greens, but the actual putting surfaces were as uncontrollably fast as any in recent memory. The result? 149 three-putts from the field in Round 3. That's the most in any round of the tournament's history -- after half the players in the field were cut.
Some players were vocally -- and rightfully -- displeased with the course setup after the round. McIlroy, who started the round seven shots behind Day, called the combination of pin positions and green speeds "borderline unfair." Jim Furyk cited the pin positions in combination with the speeds, too, openly stating that he thought the course setup crew "didn't do a good job." Others told ESPN's Michael Collins that there was a huge discrepancy in speed between the practice green and the greens on the course, something sure to draw the ire of any competitive golfer at any level -- and certainly the field of golf's "fifth major."
The greens created a pace-of-play disaster, too. Rounds approached six hours in length by the time the day had concluded, and Day mentioned that such a combination "doesn't make it fun for anyone." Pace has been a hot topic on tour in recent weeks, with officials often pushing players to pick it up. And, those intentions are good. Recreational golf needs to move quicker to grow the game, and professional golf is better when fans don't have to set aside eight-hour windows to watch tournaments. Of course, such quick greens make slow play requisite, and send a mixed message to players who are also constantly being told to play faster. The leaders teed off at 1:50 p.m. ET. They finished just after 7:30 p.m. -- nearly six hours later. The Tour only has itself to blame, what with everyone three-putting and taking forever just to navigate these ridiculous greens to get it in the hole.
So, why did this setup disaster happen?
There's a confluence of reasons -- some just, others less so -- that probably led to Sawgrass' tricked-out conditions.
First, PGA Tour setup guru Mark Russell admitted after the round that the missed forecast played a major role. The 20 mph winds weren't expected. Typical Florida May humidity and some cloud cover were expected. With the forecast provided to the setup crew before the third round, Russell said they expected the greens to lose a foot and half of roll off of them from the time they were measured as a 14 on the stimpmeter after the second round concluded Saturday morning. The greens and pin placements were supposed to be tougher on Saturday, maybe just not this tough.
But there's a question if the maintenance crew should have ever shifted the course setup as much as the Tour chose to in the middle of the day. Low scores at big tournaments on the weekdays always motivate, perhaps improperly, course setup crews to provide a tougher test over the weekend. But, generally, it's a gradual transition. Sundays at Sawgrass are always tough, but it seems this year's tournament just skipped the Saturday transition altogether -- and then kicked up speeds to a sadistic level not even seen at past Players Championships. The setup brought back memories of most of the final round of the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where players ballooned from under-par scores to numbers in the 80s, as well.
Retief Goosen, maybe the best-ever on glass greens, comparing today's TPC to Shinny in '04: "Similar. Very similar."— Alan Shipnuck (@AlanShipnuck) May 14, 2016
The consensus then was the same as it is today: this setup is dumb, unfair, and doesn't really do much to establish who the best player is this week.
Some players openly wondered if the Tour took a what-the-hell attitude in burning out the greens at Sawgrass. The course will undergo renovations to the green complexes starting next week, and there's no incentive for the maintenance crew to keep the greens at the Tour-owned venue playable after Sunday.
Not sure why everyone is so surprised by the greens, everyone knew they were being dug up on Monday, they are taking them to the limit.— Luke Donald (@LukeDonald) May 14, 2016
But did it really matter all that much at the top?
Maybe not. Despite calling it one of the toughest rounds of his career, the world's best player still sits with an opportunity to run away with it.
Despite some early stumbles that reduced his lead to as low as a single shot, Jason Day still took most of the drama out of the day by handling the tough conditions on the greens better than a large majority of the field. Day fired a 1-over-par 73, a good enough performance to keep the four-shot cushion he had after Round 2. Even after two double bogeys on the front nine, he punched back with birdies to follow after each. That's the kind of resolve through a tough setup that would make betting against Day on Sunday an inadvisable proposition.
Buried under all the controversy were the almost inexplicably good rounds from Ken Duke (65) and Hideki Matsuyama (67). Matsuyama is one of the world's bright young stars, and he made the most of an early start with several birdies on the front nine. But, Ken Duke? The 47-year-old Tour journeyman and 495th-ranked player in the world played what might have been the round of the year on Tour, besting the Round 3 average by nearly 11 shots.
Jason Day on Ken Duke's 65: "That should be the course record." #THEPLAYERS— Alex Myers (@AlexMyers3) May 14, 2016
Rory McIlroy (75) on seeing Duke's 65 and Matsuyama's 67: "That's way better than any of the 63s that you saw out there the first two days"— Mike McAllister (@PGATOUR_mikemc) May 14, 2016
Both will start Sunday four strokes behind Day, and would each make for great stories in their own right if they were able to run down the world No. 1.
* * *
Variety in golf course setup is good. Regular tour setups are mostly fine. U.S. Open setups, even, are mostly fine. Birdiefests become monotonous on Tour sometimes, and there's something satisfying to folks at home watching the best in the world hack it up like 20-handicappers. But flipping a switch from Web.com Tour-like scoring conditions to Shinnecock-style burnout isn't anything close to fair on a course that's already tricked up to the point that some call it "gimmicky." With only a few hours before the final round gets underway, it'll be difficult for the Tour to tune things down dramatically for tomorrow.
For the sake of fans and players, let's hope they do.
Here's where things stand heading to the final 18 on Sunday:
|Place||Player||Score||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3|
|T11||Si Woo Kim||-6||68||70||72|
|T34||Brendon de Jonge||-2||71||67||76|
|T55||Harold Varner, III||1||73||66||78|
* * *