There was a short window in the latter half of last decade when was fashionable to suggest that Girls Aloud were better than The Supremes and the Players Championship had earned the right to call itself the “fifth major”. Looking back, it’s hard not to giggle.
Thank heavens for the passage of time, which has a keen ear for off-key singing and a keener eye for authentic golfing history.
Fast forward to May 2014 and we find that Girls Aloud (below) have gone the way of countless other musical fads. Credit, then, to the Players Championship for outlasting Nadine Coyle and the rest of the gang.
The tournament’s 2014 edition begins this week on the eye-catching, if quirky, Pete Dye lay-out near Jacksonville Beach, Florida. As ever it will boast one of the strongest fields of the year and the biggest single-tournament purse in world golf, $10 million.
What it won’t have is the once ubiquitous ‘fifth major” marketing push from the PGA Tour (which realised it was flogging a dead horse and dropped the subject), or Tiger Woods. Only one of these two will be missed.
Woods is currently re-habbing after back surgery. His absence will deprive the tournament of a great deal of stardust, although not perhaps of a worthy pre-tournament favourite.
This might seem like a strange thing to say after Woods’ victory at the Stadium course last year – but only for those who have forgotten that the World No 1’s win 12 months ago was, uniquely, a bit of a surprise.
Woods is not a great lover of Pete Dye’s quirky lay-out. Equally, Pete Dye’s quirky lay-out is not amenable to the likes of Tiger Woods (below) – which is to say a player with all-round gifts but who relies a great deal on power.
Pledging the fifth
Which brings us to a crucial flaw in the whole “fifth major” concept.
The problem is the golf course itself. It looks great on TV, it has some great holes (for instance the par-five 16th is a real beauty, a test of skill, nerve and imagination) and it occasionally produces great drama. However, it is not a what you could be described as a “major championship” test.
Crucially, the course does not challenge the most significant aspect in the armoury of the modern player – his power.
At Sawgrass, the driver is the least important club in the bag. Woods’ victory last year was only the most recent evidence of that (the driver is his least favourite club these days).
He won not by being Tiger Woods but by turning himself into the kind of player who usually wins around the Stadium course – a mid-range, middle-of-the-pack player whose raison d’etre is to make a few mistakes as possible.
Look at the list of recent past winners – Stephen Ames, Fred Funk, Tim Clark, KJ Choi, Matt Kuchar. These players don’t stir the heart but they sure know how to find a fairway off the tee and knock it onto the green from there.
Every once in a while a power player will come along and have the week of his life, as Henrik Stenson did in 2009, when his ball-striking was Hogan-esque and his putting irresistible. But the Swede’s victory that year was the exception, not the rule. And the rule is that the Stadium course is more suited to Clark Kent than Superman.
It is with that in mind that the search for a winner this week must begin and end, amongst the more mild-mannered souls of the world golf.
There are plenty of those in the 144-man field, not least 18/1 shot Kuchar (who won the Players two years ago). He is on a striking run of form and a win would hardly be surprise, while anything outside a top-six finish almost certainly would be.
But he has already won this year, and the tendency in 2014 is towards a different winner most weeks (Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed’s efforts notwithstanding). In which case it is hard to look past Luke Donald (22/1).
The Englishman has a terrific record around the Stadium course (he has finished 4th, 6th and 19th in his last three appearances) and, after a hiatus while he adjusted to some swing changes, he has run into form. He finished second at his most recent tournament, the Heritage Classic down at Hilton Head.
The Stadium course, places a premium on accuracy from 100 yards in. The winner must chip well and putt the lights out. He will avoid silly mistakes. He will be precise and even-tempered because that’s what this place demands.
In other words – it was designed with a specific kind of player in mind. The Luke Donald kind of player.