Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the Starwood Preferred Guests Moments event at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. The event featured a round on the famous Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass with PGA Tour Player Jim Furyk.
There aren’t many things that wake me up at 3:30 am. Generally, these things involve some combination of my 2-year-old, illness, and smoke detectors needing a battery change. And no, I did not drink a bottle of 5-Hour Energy in tribute to Mr. Furyk before going to sleep.
Fast forward a few hours and I’m standing on the practice putting green at TPC Sawgrass asking Jim Furyk about his Arizona Wildcats, who would begin their NCAA Tournament later in the day. After posing for a photo with Jim (full disclosure: he asked the event organizers to bring the photo backdrop outside to have his picture taken with me – or not) a putting clinic began.
While showing us a putting line drill Jim asked whom among the group thought they were a good putter. I am usually not one to volunteer, but when no one raised a hand after what seemed like 10 minutes (but was probably as soon as Jim got the words out of his mouth) I raised my hand. And then the nerves set in…throughout out my entire body.
I putted a couple of three-footers under the string line set up on the green, and made them both. Big deal. At this point Jim Furyk, a 16-time PGA Tour winner, confirmed his absolute expertise on putting when he complimented my putting stroke, set up, and alignment. This foreshadows an unfortunate occurrence later in the round for me though.
The actual round of golf was pleasant and (thankfully) my playing partners were far from the horror-story jerks we all fear we’ll be paired when playing with strangers. Matt from Houston, Jim from Boston and Harry from Pennsylvania felt like a group of regular partners playing the normal Friday game…except we were playing a course designed expressly to challenge the best players in the world in one of the biggest tournaments of the year.
The most underrated feature of playing the Stadium Course is the forecaddie with each group. As with many Pete Dye designs, The Players Stadium course is intimidating off the tee. Most of the holes appear to have trouble left and right and the space of a juice glass to land your tee shot. The good news is that the landing areas are actually much more open than they appear. This is one aspect of Pete Dye’s signature diabolical style intended to warp the minds of touring professionals. Luckily, Terry, my group’s caddie, unlocked the secrets of where to place each of our tee shots, not that we were able to put his knowledge to use on a consistent basis.
Jim Furyk joined our group on the par-4 6th hole. After I teed up my ball and went through my pre-shot routine I stood over the ball, 3-wood in hand. In the instant before I took the club back I suddenly became aware of the fifth player in the group. A half-chunked-off-the-toe-draw somehow ran out 230 yards on the left side of the fairway.
Naturally, Jim Furyk hot exactly the shot one would expect from him. A boring 4-iron that landed 3 yards from the center of the fairway 157 yards from the flag. He knocked it to 16 feet. I bladed a pitching wedge over the back of the green and took two pair to hole out (2 chips and 2 putts).
The 7th on the Stadium Course is a tough par-4; in fact it’s the number 1 handicap hole. I somehow recovered to knock a driver out about 275 yards, one entire dimple ahead of Jim Furyk. I blame Terry the Caddie for talking me into less club that landed on the front of the green to a back pin. A decent lag on a tough breaking putt left me 3 feet sliding right-to-left for par. Again, as I drew my putter back I became aware of the fifth member of the group and pulled the putt. I looked up at Jim and said, “You shouldn’t have complimented my putting this morning.” In a show of solidarity Furyk also missed his short par putt to tie me with a bogey on the hole.
(I made my only birdie of the round on the 8th, holing a downhill 20-footer).
Jim Furyk’s on-course demeanor is stoic, even-keeled, and showing few emotions. In person, he was incredibly personable, self-deprecating, and seasoned his stories of life on Tour with a delightful sarcasm. He spoke with every member of the group, and answered all of our questions, surely ones he has heard a hundred times before. I had a couple of minutes to spend with him on the 7th. I asked him if he planned to play the Shell Houston Open the week before The Masters.
“I’ve asked a bunch of guys ‘Tell me about the course,’ they all said,
‘Well, you have to hit a high, bombed, long draw there. So it’s probably not good for you [Jim].’
“I laughed after the first three guys said that. But after seven more said that, I said ‘I’m probably never going to play there.’”
He explained that he prefers not to play the week before a major, unless the course suits him.
I also asked him about his favorite courses on Tour. Without hesitation he answered “Harbor Town.” (Site of the RBC Heritage) Furyk won there in 2010. I then asked his opinion on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, home of the Valspar Championship. “It’s top 5 for me. It’s the best course [the Tour] plays in Florida. Some people think maybe Bay Hill because of Arnie or Doral or maybe [TPC Sawgrass]. But it’s the Copperhead by far.”
The last question I asked was about his best year on Tour. I wanted to know if 2010, when he won the Fed Ex Cup and three tournaments, was his best. I also brought up 2006 when his play got his to the number 2 ranking in the world, his career high; and 2003 when he won twice including the US Open, his only major.
Jim answered that ’06 was his most consistent year because of the number of top-25s and top-10s. But he conceded that the Fed Ex Cup, 3 wins and being voted Player of the Year made 2010 his best. I thought it would be interesting to hear from a player about this. Would the year of his major, the year he hit a career high ranking or the year of his most wins and money earned be the one he thought was best. From the way he gave his answer, it seemed that being voted Player of the Year by his fellow pros really put 2010 over the top in his mind.
When one plays TPC Sawgrass there is one question that will be asked by friends and family after the round, “What’d ya make on 17?”
The pin was in the front and I tried to knock down a pitching wedge, about 125 yards. As I started my downswing I resolved NOT to rinse my ball and stepped on that wedge a bit. The ball landed over the green, nearly on walkway to the 17th green. But it was dry. I lagged the putt to 4 feet, but just like at 7 with Furyk, I pulled the par putt. Bogey. As I said to my playing partners at the time, I’d rather make a 4-putt double bogey than hit it in the water on 17.
I actually finished with three consecutive bogeys on what I think is among the best finishing stretches in golf. I took 86 strokes to get around, 17 fewer than my first attempt at The Players Stadium Course.
I hold this course in the highest regard, and count myself beyond fortunate to have played the course twice. I owe this round to my father-in-law, Jürgen Georg, who was generous enough to offer this to me from a reward that he redeemed. I came away from the day with a confidence in my game to shoot the score I did on a difficult course, an affirmation in my putting thanks to Jim Furyk, and as a fan of Jim Furyk, which I already was, but now I’ll place him among my top 5 favorites on tour.