Not yet two years old baby daughter Lisa was there on the stage with her daddy Henrik Stenson the 2009 PLAYERS Champion. Hugging his leg she was happy to be with her daddy.
At her tender age she was oblivious to the awards ceremony taking place. She likely did not see her daddy very much this week as he practiced, played and won “the fifth major” of the golfing world. As she grows older she will learn of the many story lines at the 2009 PLAYERS Championship.
Not far from the stage on the terraced back lawn of the Mediterranean Revival Style Clubhouse over on the 18th green the week began Wednesday afternoon with a “Military Tribute” to George H.W. Bush the 41st President of the United States.
Bush received the PGA TOUR’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contributions to the PGA TOUR beginning with serving as honorary chairman of The President’s Cup in 1996. Perhaps baby Lisa will remember the roar of the F-16 flyover.
On Thursday, two-time PGA TOUR winner Ben Crane shot a sizzling 7-under par 65 on a fairly calm day with greens somewhat softened from a brief Florida-style overnight thunderstorm. He led the field with nine birdies and putted like a demon.
“It was one of those rounds where obviously out here the greens are in phenomenal shape, but there's a lot of trouble lurking. I was able to put the ball in some good spots and was able to capitalize with making 170 feet of putts or something—that's close to a record, for sure, for me. So I just—it was one of those rounds that you just live for when you're a golfer. And I had one today at one of my favorite courses and tournaments of all times.”
The first round leader or co-leader has gone on to win THE PLAYERS 13 out of 35 times including the last two Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia since the tournament moved to a May date and the golf course was upgraded to play hard and fast. Maybe for Ben Crane a win at THE PLAYERS is what you live for as a golfer. After all he tied for sixth place last year.
Alex Cejka born in what is now The Czech Republic and of German nationality shot 66 along with Californian John Mallinger and 2008 U.S. Bank Champion in Milwaukee Richard S. Johnson. Neither Cejka nor Mallinger have yet won on the PGA TOUR. It was a relatively inexperienced leader board with Major champions Retief Goosen and David Toms two strokes back of leader Ben Crane.
Henrik Stenson shot an opening round of 3-under 68 and trailed by three strokes after 18 holes of play. 2001 Champion Tiger Woods shot 71 along with defending Champion Sergio Garcia. No one has ever successfully defended his title at THE PLAYERS.
Sergio admittedly struggling with his game was trying to find the answer in time to be the first to win two years in a row.
“The way I played, obviously 71 is not that bad a score. I'm trying to steer everything to make it go the right way and it didn't go the right way today. The course is playing the easiest than it is going to play all week. The greens were soft because of the rain last night. And there wasn't a lot of wind. If you play halfway decent you are going to shoot 65, 68, and 69.”
Padraig Harrington, the winner of three of the last seven Majors shot 72 as did the man who captured the first Major of the year four weeks ago- Masters Champion Angel Cabrera. In a cruel twist of fate Cabrera was paired with Kenny Perry the man he beat with a par on the second playoff hole at Augusta National. Perry shot 73 as did 2007 Champion Phil Mickelson.
On Thursday only 13 golf balls were hit into the water on the famed island green par- 3 17th hole. There were 18 hit into the water on the par-3 13thhole. Rory McIlroy who turned 20 on Monday came to No. 17 at 2-under par. He left with a triple bogey after being one of the lucky 13 to hit it into the water- his tee shot bouncing over the back edge. He then hit it into the water on No. 18 and finished with a bogey to shoot 74 in his first competitive round at TPC Sawgrass.
The weather forecast called for a high of 90 degrees for the rest of the week with moderate winds and no rain. THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass would undoubtedly be playing “hard and fast” like the best of any Major Championship. The test was set for a true champion to emerge though nothing is certain on a Pete Dye designed risk and reward golf course.
Friday’s high temperature of 92 degrees surpassed the forecast and tied the tournament high record. The winds increased to 15 mph in the afternoon challenging the late draw with more difficult conditions.
Even though it was hotter on Friday first round leader Ben Crane cooled off making only three birdies and finishing his morning round with a double bogey at No. 18 to shoot a 1-over par 73. He dropped back into a tie for ninth place five strokes off the lead.
Alex Cejka filled the void by following up his Thursday 66 with a 67 to take the lead after Round 2 at 11-under. He played in a twosome the first two days with his friend and fellow Las Vegas resident Kevin Na. Na shot a Friday 66 to tie for third place four strokes back with Henrik Stenson, John Mallinger, 2001 PGA Champion David Toms, reigning Masters Champion Angel Cabrera, and Q-School graduate Jason Dufner.
Na had nice things to say about his playing partner Cejka. “We were calling each other neighbors; nice putt there, neighbor. He made a lot of putts and so did I. We were making fun of each other.
It's like, man, the hole is too big. It's like, come on, you made it. Another putt? Are you kidding me. And we had a great time out there. And that was I think the reason why we both played well.” He wouldn’t be as cheerful after being paired with Cabrera during a slowly played third round.
Phil Mickelson the 2007 PLAYERS Champion and only other winner besides Garcia and Stenson to do so in May on the revamped golf course birdied his last hole Friday to make the cut on the number which was even par 144. He followed a Saturday 71 with a Sunday 76 to finish T55.
Defending champion Sergio Garcia bogeyed the 18th hole though managed to make the cut on the number like Mickelson. With a decent weekend of 71-69 he finished at 2-under par for the tournament and tied for 22nd place.
Woods playing back-to-back weeks for the first time since returning from reconstructive knee surgery shot 69 on Friday. He stood at 3-under at the midpoint of the tournament tied for 22nd place.
Ian Poulter who finished second to Harrington in last year’s British Open at Royal Birkdale shot a 4-under par 68 to climb into second place alone two strokes behind Cejka. He’s coming off his best finish on the PGA TOUR this year- a T5 last week at the Quail Hollow Championship.
Stenson already a winner on the world stage defeating then defending champion Geoff Ogilvy at the 2007 WGC-Accenture Match Play clearly likes TPC Sawgrass. “I just like the whole concept of risk and reward. You see pretty clearly what you can do, and if you pull off the shots, you're going to get rewarded, and if you don't, you're going to be in trouble a lot of times. I think it's a very fair and square golf course in that sense.”
The 33-year old Swede went off the back nine in the afternoon as the wind started to impact play on the Stadium Course.
“There's not a lot of wind out there, but it kind of picked up a few times, and as you said, it swirled around a little bit, and for sure if you don't know where it's coming from, 16, 17, 18 can be tricky. I managed to dump up in the water on 18 there off a great tee ball and then only had a little 9-iron but got away with a 5 and got it back with birdies on 1 and 2. Yeah, it can make it a bit tricky."
Going into the weekend, the resident of Dubai, United Arab Emirates knows patience is the key to winning PLAYERS Championships at TPC Sawgrass. “It's a great golf course, and it's in great condition.
I think it's going to firm up over the weekend. It's going to be hard to get close to the pins, and you've just got to have a ton of patience and keep plodding away, give yourself chances. I've been putting very well so far, so hopefully I can keep that up, and as I said, I've had a ton of patience these first two days and I need to have more the next two days.”
The European Tour member and five-time winner will rely on three solid finishes in only three appearances in THE PLAYERS- a T3 in 2006, a T23 in 2007 and aT10 after a Sunday 71 last year. “I've had three pretty good tournaments so far at Sawgrass, obviously, and in good position for another one. Last year I remember it was pretty brutal on the last day.
I moved up from 25th or something to 10th, so anybody can make a big move if the weather goes like that. I don't know what the forecast is, but it's really hot out there, and it's all about drinking a lot and staying focused. I did that today. I'd like to be in this position when the back nine comes Sunday.”
Eighty-three golfers made the Friday cut at even par 144.
Saturday was as hot as Friday and the temperature again peaked to 92 degrees. The winds were 10-15 mph which baked the greens to a paper bag brown color by the time the leaders teed off at 2:35 p.m.
Attesting to the difficulty of the golf course no golfers in the last eight twosomes broke par. The third round scoring average was 72.614 compared to the first round at 72.084 and the second at 72.379. The day’s best round was a 3-under 68 shot by Kenny Perry and Woody Austin.
While shooting an even-par 72 Alex Cejka increased his lead of two to five strokes at the end of the day. He birdied No. 18 as if to say “catch me if you can.”
On moving day Tiger Woods did the moving jumping up 20 places to T2 after shooting a 2-under par 70. As fate would have it he was the first to post 6-under for the first three rounds and will be paired with Cejka in the final twosome on Sunday.
Cejka’s playing partner Ian Poulter who shot 75 commented on the unpromising Sunday pairing. “It's going to be a difficult day for Alex tomorrow. He's playing with Tiger. He's got a five shot lead. He's going to be having dinner tonight thinking 11-under par should be good enough. And if you go out there with that mindset it's going to be difficult. It's going to be a difficult day for him.”
After all Sean O’Hair had a five stroke lead when paired with Tiger at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and look what happened to him.
Even Cjeka at the biggest moment of his golfing career was thinking about the pairing with Tiger. “I don't know if I'm going to prepare myself overnight to play with him. It's going to be tough. He's the best player. But it's going to be a good challenge for me. I know I have a lead, but it's against not only Tiger but against the rest of the field. I mean, I've got to play well tomorrow to win here.”
He was right—win lose or draw even though you can’t do that in golf unless it’s The President’s Cup and Nicklaus and Player are the captains this is a positive experience for Cjeka.
“It's going to be a little bit of pressure, but on the other side I'm here. Last week I didn't know if I was going to play here. It's a big bonus being in this position sitting here three days in a row. I'm going to go out there and try my best, and if I should make it, I think it would be the best day in my career so far.”
Woods after putting three subpar rounds together despite not having his A-game is humbly looking forward to Sunday and possibly his second PLAYERS championship trophy. “(I am) just grinding it out. This is basically our fifth major, and that's how it's playing. It's playing just like a major championship. It's fast, it's hard, and it’s dry. And you just have to keep plodding along.”
Tied in second place with Woods are Stenson, Poulter, Crane, Goosen and Byrd. The last two shot 1-under par 71. Crane eagled No. 16 and birdied No. 18 to save his round and post 72.
In the next to last twosome Kevin Na played with Angel Cabrera in what appeared to be a not so friendly twosome. Cabrera seemed frustrated with Na’s relatively slow play to the extent he and his caddie sat down on a knoll greenside within 30 feet of the hole while Na lined up a lengthy and difficult birdie putt though a swale.
Cabrera and his caddie did not get up until Na’s putt stopped ten feet past the hole. Na ended up three-putting.
Cabrera with honors on the par-5 11thhole waited for a while on the tee but hit quickly with his ball rolling up behind Jason Dufner right after he hit his second shot. Simply a difference of how to speed up play- hang back patiently or give ‘em a little nudge to know they are slow.
Na was questioned afterwards on his slow play and if it impacted his playing partner. “Angel? I don't know. I'm out there trying to play my best. We're not going anywhere, so if I want to take another look, I have every right to take another look.”
Both players lost ground to par in the third round though Na after hitting it into the water on the par-3 13th hole and failing to get up and down made a triple bogey yet recovered with a birdie on No. 15 and an eagle on No. 16 to shoot a 74.
Cabrera with five bogeys on the front nine, a double bogey on No. 14 and two birdies shot a five-over par 77 and all but eliminated himself from contention after winning the Masters four weeks ago.
On Sunday, Kevin Na shot 70 to finish T3 with John Mallinger five strokes behind Stenson. By far this was his best PLAYERS in his fourth appearance. “I felt like I played great the whole week.
One bad hole, I had a triple bogey that I think really cost me a chance to win this golf tournament, but I was still right there until the end. Stenson is playing incredible golf. You've got to tip your hat to him. He's just played unbelievably well.”
Cabrera rebounded on Sunday too shooting a one-under par 71 and finished T14.
Stenson’s 1-over par 73 on Saturday kept him in the hunt for his first PLAYERS title. Though after getting it to 2-under for the day he bogeyed 14, 15 and 16 coming in.
“I'm still in pretty good shape and as I said, I would have liked to finish a bit better. And that's just the nature of the golf course. I ended up dropping that one on 16 there from a semi-plugged lie from the bunker. (On) 17 I hit a good shot and was a little too heavy with the putter, even though I was very light with it, and hit it five feet by and missed the one coming out. I bogeyed those two. And the rest I'm very pleased with and still you've got to have tons of patience out there, and you have to accept the bad breaks as well. If I had my bad breaks on 16 and 17 today I can hopefully finish a bit better tomorrow.”
Stenson has experience fending off Tiger in Dubai in 2007. Will that experience help him on Sunday if Tiger makes a charge?
“If you won tournaments where he's been in the field that's always pleasing and makes it even better. I've played a lot with him and I'm sure he's going to come firing on all cylinders tomorrow like he always does on Sunday when he has a chance to win. The key is just to stick to your own game and hopefully play better than he does.”
Stenson was looking ahead to Sunday and what it would take to win the tournament from Cejka, Tiger and the other four golfers he is tied with after three rounds. “I think a couple under, at least.
I don't know how many—it's always hard to know how much the breeze is going to be and so on. But it all depends on how everybody finishes up today, as well. From where I am I definitely see myself having to shoot under par tomorrow to have a chance to win.”
Twelve golfers were cut after Saturday’s third round in accordance with PGA TOUR policy when more than 78 golfers make the cut there is a second cut after the third round to the low 70 and ties.
Sunday came and so too did the dramatic finish of the 36th rendition of the PLAYERS Championship. The weather remained the same with a high of 90 degrees and light winds though gusty at times. The golf course played hard and fast and was a true test of talent, determination and wits of the 71 golfers remaining in the field.
With Tiger in the final twosome The PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was transformed into a Roman Coliseum with swarming galleries surrounding the faint hearted gladiator challengers. As Tiger made his way to the first tee for the 2:25 p.m. competition bell his galleries swamped the next to last three groups on Holes Nos. 1, 2 and 3. This was Tiger’s PLAYERS Championship to win no doubt about it.
The expected Tiger 1-2 punch did not completely materialize. The first part did- Cejka got off to a rough start—bogey-par-par-double bogey-bogey-bogey and lost the lead after the first six holes. The second part did not—Tiger bogeyed two of his first four holes and never really made a charge.
Tiger Woods shot a Sunday 73 and finished alone in 8th place. Even though we saw his brilliance at Bay Hill the 2009 Tiger is not the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Tiger. “It's a little frustrating. But this week I have an idea of what I need to do; it's just a matter of doing it when I do it properly. I'm not that far off. Look at my rounds since I've come back and played again, I really haven't been that far off. But I just haven't been as consistent as I was before my injury.”
Cejka shot a Sunday 79 and plummeted to T9. “I kind of hit good shots, but I got bad breaks, bad lies, didn't make one putt. You know, a couple drives were a little bit off and I'm in the bunker or first cut or whatever, and then just never had it going, not one momentum where you make a birdie or something or a good shot, a lucky break.
I hit good shots into par-5s and I get screwed, terrible lies, like 11, like 2. I hit beautiful shots there, I should walk off with two birdies, and I struggled to make par.” Any psychologist would likely say it’s okay to admit that the pressure got to you and then to start dealing with the real problem.
Ben Crane came out Sunday morning as he finished Saturday evening- red hot. He made two bombs and birdied the first two holes to get to 8-under quickly though he missed a makeable 10 footer on No. 4 and rimmed out another long putt on No. 5. After missing a 15 foot chip-putt that Stenson would make on No. 7 he missed the green on the difficult par-3 8th hole and made bogey.
Prior to that bogey he was momentarily in the lead alone at 8-under after Cejka bogeyed No. 5. A patron at the 8th green before he played his chip shot yelled out “Ben how does it feel to be the in the lead?” Whether that thought had an impact or not who knows but he bogeyed No. 8, lost the Mo-Jo and then Nos. 13 and 14 watching playing partner Henrik Stenson shot 66 and win the 2009 PLAYERS Championship.
After Crane bogey at No. 8 there was a four-way tie for the lead between Crane, Poulter, Stenson and Goosen. Twelve players were within two shots of the lead and it was anybody’s tournament.
Stenson in a Tiger-like manner made three heroic par saves before making his first birdie of the day. His 8-iron on the par-3 3rd hole was slightly long to a back hole location. He found himself in a bunker with the hole over the elevation of his head and barely 20 feet away. Talk about playing to the hood of a car. His ball barely cleared the embankment and somehow stopped six feet short. He converted the putt for par.
On the long par-4 5th hole he popped up his second shot right from 217 yards in the middle of the fairway. He was left with a pitch from the grass dunes 20 feet above the green elevation and a distance of 40 yards. He flopped it high and made the ensuing 10 footer for par.
On the relatively easy par-4 6thhole his approach iron from 153 yards rolled down into the swale on the left side of the green. With a short right hole location he had a difficult two=putt especially after running the 60 foot lag putt 10 feet by the hole. But he made the putt for his third miraculous par save of the day.
And then the break of the tournament maybe the key to the tournament came on the very next hole. After he hit his 153-yard approach shot short left of the front left hole location on No. 7 Crane followed suit from 142-yards. Crane being just outside Stenson went first and missed. Stenson converted for his first birdie of the day and never looked back.
He reached the remaining three par-5 holes in two strokes and birdied all three two putting from 50 feet on the fringe on No. 9 then getting it up and down from a bunker on No. 11 and two putting on No. 16 from 40 feet.
Along the way he deuced No. 13 by chip-putting in from 10 feet and lasered an iron to within three feet on No. 15. End result six birdies and zero bogeys. A masterful score of 66 to win the PLAYERS Championship.
The World No. 1 golfer Woods recognized Stenson’s remarkable achievement. “Pretty incredible. He played great. We all know he's got all the talent in the world to do this. It was just a matter of time before he put it together. To do it on this stage was pretty impressive.”
Poulter who shot 70 on Sunday finished second alone and once again was simply outplayed knew he was in it with 10 holes to play. “I took a glimpse on the second hole, saw he made bogey to be back at 10. I didn't really much pay attention.
There's not really many boards out there until really we got to the eighth, and then looked up, and I think Alex was back to 7-under at that stage and I was tied for the lead. So in a space of five holes, he'd dropped four shots. And then I said to my caddie then, "This is going to be an interesting day."
The Englishman thought he had to beat Tiger to win. “I felt I just had to finish in front of Tiger to win today. But I wasn't expecting someone to go out there and shoot 66.”
Though Sergio Garcia is best known as the best player to never have won a major finishing second to Padraig Harrington at the 2007 British Open and the 2008 PGA Championship Ian Poulter is making somewhat of a claim to that title.
“Once Alex (Cejka) started, he started dropping a few shots, and all of a sudden we're in this golf tournament. I was pleased with how I pretty much finished the tournament off, and hats off to Henrik for putting his foot down and disappearing. I guess it's similar, where Padraig put his foot down and disappeared on me at the Open.”
Did Stenson win a Major on Mother’s Day in northeast Florida? Poulter boldly responded to the question on everyone’s mind- is THE PLAYERS Championship on par with The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and the PGA Championship? “I mean, everybody talks about it as the fifth major, and I think with the field, with the World Ranking points and the winners on that trophy, you have to respect that, and I think it is.”
The little baby girl Lisa’s father is a professional golfer with an unorthodox pre-shot routine where he swings the opposite end of the club. “I sort of paint the swing; really paint the path of the swing, and it's easy to do that without the resistant of a club head. Then I can obviously get the same feel from turning the club upside down, and it just gets me on plane.”
He has won on the biggest of the world golfing stages. “I kind of felt I had to go out there and be very patient again and I didn't make any birdies early on. I had a chance to make something of two, and I didn't make that, and then I saved myself well on 3 and just lipped out on 4 and a great save on pretty much 5 and 6 and turned around and made a putt on 7.”
Where does this Sunday 66 rank as far as his best rounds ever in tournament competition? “It's definitely up there, if not the best final round I've done.
It's just going to give me a lot of confidence to go out there and control myself and play as well as I did today on the last day at TPC Sawgrass and to hold off such a strong field. It's just going to give me a lot of confidence going into the majors, and obviously if I can play as well as I did today, I surely can do it on a Sunday at the majors.”
“I probably controlled myself as well as I've ever done. I felt like even if I wouldn't have played as well today and won this tournament, I still felt like if I can be in that good state of mind and control myself as well as I have done this week, I'm bound to win some great tournaments further down the line.”
Stenson managed to keep his clothes on too unlike the WGC-CA Championship at Doral. “It was just everywhere. A lot of publicity for the game obviously, a lot of publicity for me, and I managed to get a few new fans, which is nice. I guess I got as much attention off that thing as from my results the last ten years. That's the way it felt like. Yeah, I mean, this is obviously going to be the latest thing on the résumé.”
Stenson knows the value of a good caddie. “I mean, I've been very lucky to have Fanny (Suneson) around for the last two and a half years now. As I said, we kind of pulled her out of retirement. It's just been a great journey. We've had some great wins together and she's a great support.
We have good fun on the golf course. No, we just have a great time, and obviously with her experience being out there for 20-odd years and winning some great championships with some great players, I know that she's spot-on with everything she does. I couldn't have a caddie that's more prepared than she is when we tee off.”
“I think it helps that we can both speak Swedish and nobody else knows what we're talking about. We can just go there and speak, and we're all safe.” Volunteer Bruce Francis who as a high school student studied abroad in Sweden yelled out “magnifik” from his post on the 16th hole after Stenson made his final birdie of the day. Truly it was a magnificent round of golf.
The 2009 PLAYERS Champion knew what maybe no other golfer in the hunt knew going into the final round on Sunday about you know who. “He can't win every week, even though he obviously wants it. That's just the nature of the game. He's the world's best player, but I don't expect him to win every time.”
Down comes the Spanish flag in Sergio’s honor and up goes the Swedish flag to commemorate Henrik’s victorious week at THE PLAYERS. He will reign as PLAYERS Champion for the ensuing year and begin to slowly and surely tell baby Lisa and wife Emma the secrets to winning the big one at TPC Sawgrass.
Andy Reistetter is a freelance golf writer. He follows the PGA TOUR volunteering for the tournaments and working part time for NBC Sports, CBS Sports, and The Golf Channel. He resides in Jacksonville Beach, Florida near the PGA TOUR headquarters and home of The PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach. He enjoys pursuing his passion for the game of golf and everything associated with it. He can be reached through his website www.MrHickoryGolf.net or by e-mailing him to Andy@MrHickoryGolf.net