PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | There is an axiom in mannered society that suggests it is not polite to stare, particularly when someone finds themselves in an awkward or embarrassing situation.
That rule doesn’t apply to the Players Championship where it’s impossible not to stare, particularly at the disasters that have speckled the first three days of golf at the Stadium Course like confetti on Super Bowl winners.
It is a substantial element in the allure of this event, the possibility – lurking on virtually every shot not hit with a putter (and a few that are) – of self-destruction.
It’s not that way at The Masters, though bad things happen to good players there. It just doesn’t happen as often as at the Players Championship, especially this year when the wind has remained insistent and the new greens are as firm as a two-by-four.
Here’s a number: Forty-nine players made a double bogey or worse on at least one hole in the third round. And only 82 guys played Saturday.
For example, Chez Reavie was within two strokes of the lead Saturday until he made a 9 on the short, par-4 fourth hole thanks to two balls in the water and the finishing burn of a three-putt green.
It’s not often that Tour players, even someone such as Reavie who doesn’t frequent leaderboards, make a 9. But Matt Kuchar made one on the 14th hole Saturday. Scott Piercy and Zac Blair made 9s on Friday. Anirban Lahiri hit double figures in the second round, making a 10 on the 18th hole when a routine par (if there is such a thing there) would have earned him a spot on the weekend tee sheet.
On Saturday, Rickie Fowler was having a go, 4-under par through 12 holes, and then it bled away. He finished with a triple bogey on the 18th when his tee shot lodged in a tree. That’s an uncommon happening where the tee shot generally offers the option of water left, a jailhouse of live oaks on the right and a strip of fairway in between that looks as wide as Christmas ribbon.
Jon Rahm, who has seemed almost incapable of doing anything wrong on the golf course this year, had four 6s on his scorecard by the time he reached the 11th tee Saturday. He went from the trendy pick to win to missing the secondary cut that would allow him to play Sunday. Shooting 82 can do that.
“I made a lot of good swings that I just keep getting bad breaks or not what I hoped for and I kept getting pounded and pounded,” Rahm said.
He’s just 22. The bruises will heal quickly. And he’s not alone in his misery.
“The course is hard. It’s a hard course. Doesn’t fit my eye on almost any shot, like everybody else. That’s how it was designed,” Pat Perez said.
“So you know who loves it? Maybe the winner on Sunday? That’s about it. It’s a hard course. It was designed to penalize you and challenge trouble and that kind of stuff and that’s what it does and it makes it uneasy for you. There’s not a shot out there that I’m comfortable hitting.”
And, by the way, Perez made those comments after shooting 66 on Saturday.
This is a place where a running count is kept of the number of balls that die a watery death at the notorious par-3 17th. This year, there have been 57 water balls – Blair donated a sleeve of them on Friday – and there’s still another round to be played.
Many design purists hate the 17th hole as do plenty of players, but it is the perfect symbol of this course and this event. It’s dramatic, even on a calm day when the best players in the game could hit the green blindfolded. With every tee shot that’s hit at 17, there’s a momentary pause, almost like a suspension of time, to watch and wonder if the ball will find land.
There has been a whipping crosswind from the left this year but that is expected to change Sunday when the wind is forecast to come from the opposite direction, adding to the fun and games.
This year, the margin between a good shot and serious trouble seems thinner than before, in part because the course is so firm from a prolonged dry spell. It is, however, the nature of the Stadium Course to set the plot and determine who can best follow it.
Power is an advantage but not as much as at many other places. Dustin Johnson plays from many of the same spots as everyone else.
That explains why shorter hitters such as Fred Funk, Tim Clark and KJ Choi have won at the same place Jason Day, Tiger Woods and Davis Love III have won. It may be the most egalitarian of the biggest tournaments.
It may also be the most dangerous.