No shortage of drama for Players Championship

Padraig Harrington would be among the thousands of fans surrounding the island green on the TPC Sawgrass if he came to The Players Championship as a spectator instead of a three-time major champion.

Mark Calcavecchia hits from the sand on the 15th hole during the first round of The Players Championship golf tournament Thursday in Ponte Vedra Beach

Mark Calcavecchia hits from the sand on the 15th hole during the first round of The Players Championship golf tournament Thursday in Ponte Vedra Beach

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Padraig Harrington would be among the thousands of fans surrounding the island green on the TPC Sawgrass if he came to The Players Championship as a spectator instead of a three-time major champion.

Is there any other place to watch?

Perhaps no other golf course is more defined by a single hole than the par-3 17th at the Players Stadium Course, which is not to suggest it’s one of the great holes in golf or among the most beloved.

Exciting? Usually. Pivotal? Sometimes.

It is part of one of the more dynamic closing stretches on the PGA Tour, coming after the reachable par-5 16th with water framing the right side of the final 200 yards, and before the tough 18th hole, where the wind typically comes in from the left off a lake that runs down the entire side of the hole.

“But 17 is the one because there is glory and some horror shows there,” Harrington said. “And we all, as spectators, that’s what we want to see. We want to see the highs and lows and the emotions. You’ll see a lot of them on 17.”

There should be plenty of action, for sure, when The Players Championship gets under way today.

The PGA Tour’s version of a major championship has all the ingredients for a big show this year. Phil Mickelson has a chance to go to No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career, provided Tiger Woods finishes out of the top five. Woods has made that possibility seem even more real by missing the cut last week at Quail Hollow with the highest 36-hole score of his career.

Henrik Stenson is the defending champion, and Europeans are trying to win this event for the third straight year. Those hopes lie with players like Rory McIlroy, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Tuesday just two days after winning at Quail Hollow with a round of 62 that will be talked about the rest of the year.

But despite having the course for a spectacular finish, the tournament hasn’t delivered too many of those lately.

“Be the right club today” — the famous line Hal Sutton uttered in 2000 when he beat Woods with a one-shot lead and a six-iron into the 18th green — has been replaced by casual stroll by Stenson on his way to a four-shot victory.

Craig Perks finishing with an eagle, birdie and a chip-in for par has given way to Calgary’s Stephen Ames playing such brilliant golf that he won by six shots. Even the time two years ago when Sean O’Hair hit two balls in the water on the 17th hole (which cost him nine spots on the leaderboard and US$747,000), Mickelson had a two-shot lead.

In the last four years, the only time the tournament had suspense over the closing holes was when Sergio Garcia made a clutch par on the 18th to get into a playoff, then won on the 17th when Goydos hit into the water.

Such things are cyclical.

“Yeah, OK, if you played the first 66 holes and you’re so far ahead of the field, maybe you do deserve to win in comfort,” Harrington said. “But the golf course isn’t boring. That is the last thing you could ever accuse it of being.”

The opportunity is always there for the unexpected, especially with the strongest and deepest field in golf.

Mickelson doesn’t blink when comes to daring plays, yet he says it was only until he stopped trying to make a birdie on the 17th hole and settled for a par — rare for him with a wedge in hand — that he won his first Players Championship in 2007.

“It’s an exciting finish because 16 poses eagle possibilities as well as birdie,” Mickelson said. “Seventeen can go from 2 to 5 fairly easily, and then 18 you can make up ground with a par.”

The tournament for years was held two weeks before the Masters, until the PGA Tour moved it to May in 2007 to give it more identity and the golf calendar a little more separation with its biggest events. A month after the Masters, there is at least one lingering parallel with Augusta National — no lead is safe on the back nine.

“Both back nines are filled with drama, and drama is highs and lows,” Sutton said. “It’s eagles and double (bogeys), you know? I think the difference here is that the drama can be on the last three holes, and the drama usually unfolds at Augusta before it gets to the last three holes.”

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