Next year the Players Championship will return to its original slot in late March with the PGA Championship taking its place on the calendar in May.
Sandy Lyle, Craig Perks and Hal Sutton, with two, have combined to win four times at Sawgrass and all three have made notable contributions to the history of The Players. Sutton won for the first time in 1983 and then, 17 years later, beat a then-dominant Tiger Woods on a dramatic Monday finish. His commentary to his closing iron shot, more of which later, gets replayed dozens of times every year.
Lyle remains the only British or Irish player to win at Sawgrass, while Perks provided the hottest finish on a Sunday in the history of the championship. In commentary, Johnny Miller described it as the “three greatest hole-outs I’ve ever seen”.
So three men with a story to tell about the so-called fifth major…
When would you start thinking of the 17th?
Perks: When I made the turn. It is a fascinating hole, I hadn’t grown up watching The Players like I had The Masters or The Open but I had seen all the disasters of people like Lenny Mattiace and Bob Tway.
You have that in the back of your mind but it comes to the forefront when you walk past the trees about 120 yards short of the 16th green.
You hear all the roars and groans and you look across at the island green that is sitting there waiting for you.
Sutton: The hole is one of a few holes that essentially hasn’t changed much over the years. If you hit the ball solid it’s really not that hard a shot, you’re playing for the middle of the green and you should walk out of there with pars most of the time – and some birdies. I actually birdied it all four days in 1983.
I always played the front pin off the back slope, I would hit it past the hole and try and suck it back down to the flag. The rest of the time I played the ball to the top centre of the green and it usually works unless you are in the last few groups on Sunday and that green can get hard and you can hit a few in the water that way.
I did that the second time I won in 2000 in the third round and made a six.
What did you make of the course as a whole?
Lyle: Sawgrass wasn’t a course where I would feel totally comfortable on. At St Andrews or other links courses you have room to get around, TPC is for a Faldo or Mize-type player, precision players.
I had the 1-iron going and kept the ball in play and felt good about my game, I had some lessons a month before with Jimmy Ballard which were working.
I finished 14 under which was almost impossible for me. I have a poster at my house in the States, which is on the Sawgrass property, and I still can’t believe I shot that. I’ve never come close since.
Perks: You have to learn the nuances pretty quickly. At the time my short game was pretty good and we played The Players in March so it wasn’t that penal off the tee at that time of year. The severity of the course is around the greens and that was my strength.
I had played well early in the season on the Florida Swing on the Bermuda grass and I was honoured to be in the field and it helped me to enjoy the experience.
There was no pressure on me to do well and I embraced everything about the tournament.
Sutton: It has one of the most dramatic finishes in the game and is a great test of Point A to Point B to Point C-type golf. It’s not sheer power there and you have to play shots there.
What do you remember of the finish?
Lyle: I holed a big putt at 18 but didn’t think it would be good enough. I had chipped in on 15 which was a big bonus but then parred 16 which was disappointing. At the last I holed a tram-liner.
I thought that had put the finishing touches to a good week and then people fell away and it came down to just Jeff Sluman and myself.
A fan jumped in the water at 17 in the play-off and Jeff had to back off a six-footer to win so that was obviously a distraction. There were lots of oohs and aahs but we’ll never know whether he would have holed it had he not backed off.
At the 18th it was almost pitch dark which the cameras gave no idea of. I could hardly see the ball let alone the pin and we were close to saying ‘let’s come back the following morning’ but played one more in the hope of finishing it.
It was the scariest shot I have ever hit, my depth perception had gone. My chip ran eight foot past and Jeff’s stopped 10 to 12 feet short. So he had to putt first and missed. I made mine but even that was a scary putt.
Read about Hal Sutton’s unforgettable mid-flight commentary on the next page…