The Players – a championship every player in the world game would love to add to his resume – always makes for intriguing spectating and television. Staged at the PGA TOUR’s headquarters, The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is one of tournament golf’s venerable venues. A demanding layout with a spectacular finish, The Stadium Course is one of those courses on the PGA TOUR rota that is as much of a topic of conversation and analyses by the pundits as the tournament competitors are.
Intensely demanding from tee to green, The Stadium Course poses challenges that are both physical and mental. Many of the targets are encroached on by water and other hazards and the penalties for off-line or miss-struck shots are drastic. As a result there are never any guarantees and this places a lot of pressure on all those who vie for the Waterford Crystal Players Championship trophy. In order to win The Players, the player has to have supreme command of his game and his emotions and he has to navigate the perils waiting on every hole.
Perhaps the greatest of those perils being the water surrounding the island-green par three 17th hole. The 17th is in the middle of a stretch of holes that comprise the par five 16th, the 17th and the demanding par four finishing 18th hole and this very stretch has put paid to many a title contender’s hopes over the years.
Only 125 meters long, the 17th is the signature hole at TPC Sawgrass. Most competitors will hit no more than a nine iron or an eight iron but the capricious spring winds and the nature of the hole make it the perfect setting for both triumph and tragedy. Much like the Coliseum in Rome, galleries surround the hole and the players enter it just as the gladiators would. In reality the short par three should really be a doddle for the competitors and I am convinced that if the hole were not surrounded by water it would probably have an under-par tournament stroke average. But that is not the case and each and every player breathes a sigh of relief if he leaves the 17th en route to the 18th tee with a par on the card.
This year that very stretch of holes had an influence on the championship again. Tournament winner, Matt Kuchar played the holes in one-under par for the four days while runner-up, Martin Laird (two strokes behind Kuchar) played them in one-over par, including a bogey, double-bogey, bogey finish in round two and a bogey finish on the 18th in the final round. Had Laird played that closing stretch like Kuchar did, we would have a different champion this morning. But that is not the case, the tournament is a seventy-two hole proposition and the closing stretch was designed by Pete Dye to swing the event one way or the other. If you don’t think so, check in with Len Mattiace, Sean O’Hair, or Paul Goydos who all endured major mishaps on the 17th which cost them the championship.
So what can we learn from the play at The Players:
Don’t be afraid to challenge tradition. If posed the question, “Who are the most consistent players in the world game?” I would most certainly have Matt Kuchar in my top three picks. Week in and week out he is around the Top 20 and he more often than not flies under the radar en route to a Top 10 finish. This certainly wasn’t the case a few years ago. His game was plagued by inconsistency and he even lost his Tour card and was relegated to The Nationwide Tour. He retained the services of a different instructor and they made a few adjustments to his swing and his putting that raised the eyebrows of various industry pundits. He “shallowed” off his swing immensely to a point where his left arm was underneath his right shoulder at the top of the swing. For a tall man, this made his swing look tremendously flat and ungainly but it put him in a position where he could make a repetitive action under pressure. Further, it put him in a situation where self-diagnosis of swing issues was very easy for him and the rest became history.
With regard to his putting, Matt took a belly-putter and used it in a different manner. Instead of lodging it in his belly, he held it with a standard grip lower down the handle. The modification he made was to keep the top of the grip handle was in contact with the inside of his left arm as he made the stroke. This variation reduced the potential for any putter-face deviation by way of excess wrist movement and the results have spoken for themselves. So take a lesson from Kuch. Don’t be afraid to challenge tradition as you seek ways to make your game more consistent.
Develop a swing trigger. The 18th teeing ground saw an event unfold on Saturday afternoon that caused a lot of chatter from the galleries, the announcers and some of the players. Clearly struggling with emotional and mental challenges, Kevin Na took more that his regular number of pre-shot waggles before he stepped out of the shot and took a violent practice swing as he chided himself with “Pull the trigger Kevin!” Inasmuch as it was unbearable to watch, there is a lot to learn from Kevin Na’s travails. I often see clients who struggle with the same challenge of clearing their minds and pulling the trigger and the advice I offer them is simple. Don’t fret the situation and develop a swing trigger.
A great example of a swing trigger is the right knee “kick-in” as used by Gary Player. Before Player swings the club back he kicks the right knee in and this move forms a brace for the backswing and creates enough flow and movement to trigger the backswing. In my opinion the knee kick is the best trigger for the golf swing. If that does not work for you other triggers that could be employed are: a turn of the head to the right (ala Jack Nicklaus); a slight turn of the hips in the opposite direction of which they would turn in the backswing. Even a blink of the eyes (as if you were clicking a picture of the ball with your eyes) to start would help. Anything that makes the start rhythmical and less cerebral will go a long way to helping you to get that club swinging back smoothly.
Play well and enjoy our great game.