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Playoff at Sawgrass raises questions

Starting a sudden-death playoff on a par 3 is rare, but not unprecedented. It last happened on the PGA Tour eight years ago at the BellSouth Classic, when the playoff between Phil Mickelson and Gary Nicklaus began on the 16th hole because the rest of the course was covered with water.

This time, tour officials purposely sought out a hole surrounded by water.

Golf purists might complain that The Players Championship took on a carnival appearance Sunday when they changed the sequence of traditional playoff holes so that it would start on the island-green 17th.

Sudden-death playoffs typically begin on the 18th hole because the fans already are in place. That’s where it started the last time The Players went overtime, although that was 21 years ago.

Henry Hughes, the tour’s chief of operations and soon-to-be CEO of The Players, said officials decided about five years ago to start the playoff at No. 17, and there were no regrets Sunday.

“We discussed what would be the most exciting, most compelling, most attractive way to end the tournament should it end in a tie,” Hughes said. “The entire team concluded that arguably the most exciting hole in golf would be the place to contest a playoff. We think it was exciting. We think the decision was right.”

The question is how much the playoff was decided by skill and how much was decided by luck.

Playing the 472-yard 18th would have tested driving ability, iron play, scrambling and the nerves of standing over a putt for the win. Starting on an island green that played 128 yards required a wedge and hope that a gust didn’t blow at the wrong time.

Paul Goydos caught a gust of wind. Sergio Garcia did not.

“The hole was designed to do exactly what it did,” Goydos said. “Just got me instead of somebody else.”

Goydos had no complaints, however, and he conceded that he hit the ball a smidgen higher than the more penetrating shot he struck in regulation. Garcia hit a sand wedge that was close to perfection.

Goydos was right in one other aspect—the hole did what it was designed to in a playoff. It added drama, and that didn’t stop after Goydos hit into the water.

On any other hole, all Garcia had to do was play it safe. But how you do you play that shot conservatively?

“I could do exactly the same thing,” Garcia said. “I was just praying that I didn’t get any weird gusts or wind or anything that.”

As for the fans? It was impossible for so many of them to get to the 17th green in time for the playoff. However, the large video board behind the 18th green carried the action live.

Ideally, the tour should consider what the Masters won’t—a three-hole aggregate playoff starting at No. 16 to test a player on a par 5, a par 3 and a par 4, allowing room for a mistake. Who wouldn’t love to see a playoff at Augusta National around Amen Corner?

It wasn’t all bad. The 17th, after all, is the signature hole at Sawgrass. But maybe it’s a sign of The Players Championship status that it still needs to find a way for its tournament to be a little more than it already is.


May 14, 2008

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