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THE PLAYERS: Van Sickle’s View

Gary Van Sickle, our chief course rater and principal PGA Tour correspondent, moonlights as a Sports Illustrated senior writer. In that capacity he is, at this very moment, covering THE PLAYERS at the 51st-ranked TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, Fla. Busy as he is, Gary was kind enough to slide a few thousand words of cogent analysis under our door, asking only that we not identify him as the author. We therefore ask that you, the readers, honor his request.

Phil Mickelson

Mickelson, a former PLAYERS champ, was happy to take the Fifth. (John Garrity)

Gary’s chosen topic, by the way, is “THE PLAYERS: Is It the Fifth Major?”

Repeat after me: There will never be a fifth major championship.

Now repeat after me again: Never say never.

It is no longer a stretch to use the words fifth major in the same sentence as THE PLAYERS. It’s been done. In fact, starting in the pages of Sports Illustrated in 1984 when Dan Jenkins, famous sportswriter and soon to be World Golf Hall of Fame member, wrote about the Tournament Players Championship (a.k.a. The Players). “For two years,”Jenkins wrote, “the pros had been howling louder than a North Florida wind about the horrors of the design of their own course at their own headquarters and the site of their own championship, which has certainly become the ‘fifth major.’”

Ahh, you say, but Jenkins is a comedian and a master of sarcasm. Those aren’t quote marks around fifth major, you say, those are Dan’s dried tears from laughing so hard at his ironic use of “certainly” and “fifth major.”

Fine. Let’s go to Pebble Beach during the West Coast Swing of 2008, where Phil Mickelson was answering a question about where he plays. “What’s difficult from a player’s point of view,” Lefty said, “is scheduling, because if you take the five majors, counting the Players, and the three World Golf Championships, which is eight…”

Five majors. He said it!

Not so fast, you counter. Phil, too, is a comedian and… wait a minute, didn’t Phil win The Players the year before this comment? He’s counting The Players as a major because HE won it!

Gee, you people are so cynical. I don’t even know you anymore.

Let’s agree on two things, at least. One, golf history is fluid. It meanders like the mighty Mississippi. Even the Masters wasn’t always a major. Adding a fifth major championship may seem as unnecessary as dunking an Oreo in hot fudge, but hey, it might happen in this now-now-NOW world where yesterday’s tradition is today’s who cares?

Two, the competition for any future fifth-major status looks a lot like a Soviet election—only one real candidate. The Players is effectively the last man standing.

You’re not so sure? Well, follow along as I weed out the pretenders, who will fall away, one by one, like those sniffling, rose-less Bachelorettes.

Let’s start with the weakest.

A friend, whom I will identify only as a “Mr. Google” in order to protect his true identity, found this in a 1981 Associated Press story: “Tom Watson, who turned back the Masters bids of Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, can expect a challenge from a different quarter this week in golf’s “Fifth Major,” the $300,000 MONY Tournament of Champions.”

Sounds like the new kid at the AP desk swallowed some bad press release for lunch. The T of C was a small-field event for winners only. Not a major. Not even close.

Next, from the bargain bin at Borders, there’s Tales from Q-School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major, by John Feinstein. Horror stories from the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament could, indeed, fill a book, but if Q-School is really a major championship, you should be able to name a Q-School winner of the last 30 years.

Can’t do it? Didn’t think so. Case closed.

Next up is AmateurGolf.blogspot.com with the headline, “THE FIFTH MAJOR: THE U.S. AMATEUR.” Yes, it used to be called the National Amateur, and it was once part of the Grand Slam (or the “Impregnable Quadrilateral,” a nickname that somehow didn’t stick), won by Bobby Jones in 1930—the U.S. and British Amateurs, the U.S. and British Opens. That was back when amateur golf mattered and pro golf was viewed as a troupe of unwashed vagabonds. The National Amateur faded in relevance, however, well before the 21st century.

The only thing funnier than last year’s Golf Boys’ video was when the European Tour issued a press release touting its BMW PGA Championship as golf’s “Fifth Major.”  Yes, seven of the top nine players in the world ranking competed, and yes, golf’s pendulum of power has clearly swung toward Europe for the first time since America invented the game. (Just kidding—laugh, Scotland!)

Said England’s Lee Westwood, a delightful and clever chap, “The Players probably used to be regarded as the fifth major, and it felt that way back in the late ‘90s. But since the invention of the World Golf Championships, it’s actually stepped back. So what is it, eighth on the list now?”

Ouch. Added South Africa’s Ernie Els, “This event is definitely taking the place of the TPC. I also feel we’ve got a stronger field here and a classic golf course.”

Naturally, their comments were totally objective. Westwood is a longstanding critic of The Players, notably skipping it, and Els needed to justify his redesign of the Wentworth Club course, which drew loud criticism even though everybody loves Ernie.

Golf’s Fifth Major, the BMW PGA? Please, serious attempts only, gentlemen.

Here’s what a real Fifth Major contender looks like. The Australian Open, the toast of an entire continent, dates to 1904, is played on classic layouts such as Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath, and its roll call of champions includes Gene Sarazen, Norman von Nida, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Bobby Locke. Gary Player won it a record seven times. Nicklaus won six.

Even better, Nicklaus called it the fifth major on his many trips Down Under, which is noted in nearly every Aussie Open reference. When the Greatest Golfer of the Twentieth Century speaks, people listen.

But when the Greatest Golfer of the Twentieth Century writes, they don’t read. In his 1969 biography, The Greatest Game of All: My Life in Golf, Jack stated, “In conversations with friends I referred to the Australian Open as a major championship, but they knew and I knew I was kidding myself. Being the national championship of a golf-minded country, the Australian Open was a most estimable tournament to be won but simply wasn’t a major championship except in the eyes of Australians. Of course, the men who won it prized it highly.”

Sorry about that, mates. No Jack endorsement plus few top American players in the last 20 years equals no major.

Gary’s rant will resume shortly. (Our fact checkers need a breather.)


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Wentworth Redesign Inflames Poulter

It went unnoticed last year, the precipitous Top 50 dive of the Wentworth Club’s West Course from No. 58 to No. 712. I had meant to comment on it, since Wentworth, just outside London, is the most storied non-links venue in European golf — headquarters of the PGA European Tour, site of the 1953 Ryder Cup, host to the World Match Play from 1964 to 2007, and longtime venue for the British PGA Championship. But one of my aides pointed out that criticism of Wentworth by an American, coming at a delicate stage in Anglo-American peace talks, might not be in the national interest. So I simply tweeted, “els redesign of wntwrth sucks, shld blowit up n strt ovr.”*

*I dictate my tweets in standard English.  My granddaughter converts them to Twitterese.

Yesterday, however, an Englishman known for his Union Jack trousers tore into Wentworth West with such abandon that I no longer see the need for reticence. “Bloody hell,” Ian Poulter almost said yesterday, after he double-bogeyed the tarted-up 18th hole for a second-round 74 at the aforementioned BMW PGA Championship. My GOLF Magazine colleague, Paul Mahoney, reports that Poulter “ranted” when asked what he found most challenging about the redesign by golf legend Ernie Els:

“The tees, the fairways, the rough, the greens, and those 20-foot-deep bunkers,” he ranted. “I don’t like this golf course, period. End of story.”

The new green at the par-5 18th hole, fronted by a mail-order brook, received the brunt of Poulter’s opprobrium. “We are trying to land it on a dining room table from 230 yards out,” he sputtered. “I’ve hit what I thought was a perfect third shot, maybe caught out a tiny bit by the wind, and it pitches by the green and finishes in the hazard. Marvelous!”

Asked if he was begging permission to play from the forward tees, the world’s 14th-ranked golfer reddened. He said, “I don’t have a problem with tough courses, but I’ve walked off the golf course and I’m headless, absolutely fuming.”

Tokyo Neon Image

Harry Colt considered, but rejected, a neon-distraction feature for Wentworth's 18th hole. (John Garrity)

Poulter is known to get emotional, so I checked the British papers to see what calmer heads had to say. The Telegraph, under the headline, “Ernie Els’ New 18th Hole at Wentworth Is a Ghastly Sell-out,” seems to take Poulter’s side. “Wentworth’s new 18th hole is a nasty piece of Americana,” barks the subhead. “It is a strip of blazing neon** jagging across the natural green and russets of the Surrey countryside.”

** I’m not speaking for the Top 50 here, but I LOVE neon and have long wondered why it hasn’t been put to better use by golf architects. The anti-climactic 18th at Cypress Point, for example, could use a little Times Square wattage to heighten its appeal.

Harry Colt’s double-par-5 finish, of course, was a Wentworth trademark, the encroaching woods creating enough risk to frighten contenders while allowing for go-for-broke approach shots and crowd-pleasing eagles. Running a faux burn through it was so outrageous that Ryder Cupper Paul Casey begged for a plan to protect classic British courses from predation. “Maybe we should introduce a scheme like we have with historic buildings in this country,” he said a year ago. “Ernie has a beautiful house by the 16th with the thatched roof and old plaster work. Now, he owns it, but that doesn’t give him the right to paint it pink and put a tin roof on it.”

The Telegraph’s Mark Reason, while conceding that much of Els’s work at Wentworth was needed and well-executed, struggled to explain the Trumpian excesses.

The simple answer appears to be that the owner [Richard Caring] saw a bit of eau un-naturel on telly and decided that he wanted some too …. The result is something that looks flash, but is golfing nonsense. A perfectly good par five has been turned into a bash, a lay-up and a pitch across water. It might as well be a par three. They spent half a million quid on an aquatic folly – there goes the winner, not waving, but drowning.

Els, understandably defensive, faulted the tournament staff for some “crazy” second-round pin positions. That aside, he dismissed his critics as a bunch of hacks who couldn’t break par while he was shooting 68. “This is a real golf course now,” Els proclaimed. “Forget about going 24-under-par any more. It ain’t happening.”

Sorry to hear that, Ernie, because Wentworth just dropped another twenty rungs to No. 732.

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