Players 2023: When today is not your day
Jared C. Tilton
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — It was good for 23 feet, only the hole was 23 feet and a few inches away, and in those final inches Ben Griffin’s ball decided to make a detour from the cup. The thousands engulfing the 17th cried out, “OOOOOOHHHH!,” a sound that seemed harmonious to the life being sucked out of Griffin as he doubled over, hands on his knees and head towards the ground. He looked betrayed, he looked deflated, he looked like you look when something so promising does not live up to its promise.
Golf, distilled down to its simplest form, is not kinetic or sequential. Each tournament and each round and each hole and each shot is independent of the one before and the one to come. Doesn’t matter how good or how bad the moment was that just passed, for the moment of now presents its own challenge that commands your full attention and anything less is punished. It’s part of golf's beauty and part of its depravity, for when you feel like you’ve figured it out you find yourself lost, and when all hope feels lost suddenly things start to click.
But there are exceptions, when there is a throughline and rhythm and connectivity. Though that can be great, it’s often not. When every bounce is a bad one, when the wind turns on the fan as the ball is in mid-flight, when the flag posts a sign that says “Sorry, we’re closed,” when it seems like there are higher forces at work and for some reason they are working against you. When it’s one of those days where it’s just not your day.
Saturday was the day for most of the field at TPC Sawgrass, the course playing more than four shots easier in Round 3 than in Round 2. It was a day for Scottie Scheffler, who owns a two-shot lead heading into the final 18 at the Players Championship thanks to a 65. Min Woo Lee had himself a day, too, finding his way into the last pairing with a 66. Tom Hoge had the day of the day with a 62, setting a new Sawgrass tournament record, and Aaron Rai made everyone’s day with a hole-in-one.
There are others, however, who are ready to put this day in the past. Like Adam Svensson. The RSM Classic winner began Round 3 with a one-shot lead and opened with a birdie. Only he made a mess of the par-5 second, making 6 when the rest of the field was making 4, and for the next 11 holes he appeared to be steering a car that had lost its lug nuts. The wheels finally came off at the 14 following a fanned tee shot, a hooked approach, a third that caught a bunker and a fourth, fifth and sixth that didn’t find the hole. The final damage was a triple bogey en route to a 75, the third-worst score on the day that moved Svensson from one ahead of the pack to eight shots behind.
“A little bit [off] with the putter, a little bit [off] with the irons,” Svensson said. “You're going to have one of those days. But I just didn't … when you have those days, you scramble for par or whatever, but just had too many mistakes.”
Svensson was asked if he felt nervous, if he was overwhelmed with what was on the line. “It was very strange. I was very calm I wasn't nervous,” Svensson asserted. “Yeah, I don't know.”
It was one of those days for Collin Morikawa. He has looked so good this year and looked so good to start this event. TPC Sawgrass seems built for Morikawa, a venue that calls for precision and patience and the occasional bravado. The "new Big Three"—Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy—was thrown around liberally this week, and Morikawa was a weekend away from reminding everyone they should make that the Big Four.
Yet through 14 holes Morikawa was in the black, his card’s two birdies weighed down by four bogeys. He had a chance to get right at the 15th, staring down a 10-footer for birdie, but the birdie didn’t drop. As his playing partners Lee and Christiaan Bezuidenhout finished out, Morikawa fastened his hands on his hips, and for a second it sure looked like he was hoping to wish a time machine into existence so he could jump in and start this round from scratch. Alas, science has yet to produce such a marvel, so Morikawa’s round had to stand, and though he ultimately turned in a 72, it is a number that puts him out of the Sunday running.
It wasn’t Brendon Todd’s day; a 74 moved him from the top 10 to miles outside it. Sahith Theegala had a 78. Rory McIlroy just got done with a couple of these days, and looked very much like a man who needed a couple days off.
“Just it is what it is. I actually don't feel like I'm playing that badly at all,” McIlroy said. “A few miscues here and there, putted it off the sixth green yesterday, and just stuff that—just a little untidy here and there.”
When a day like this day happens you do anything you can to turn it around. You switch out balls, you think of a time when the sport made sense, you say a prayer. But the switch doesn’t work, you’re overcome with memory loss and the heavens reply, “God can't save you.” Your caddie will say, “All right, let’s see it here” and nothing happens, and it becomes awkward because what else can you say? When a day like this happens, it's like you're in a foreign world and you realize you left your translation book on the plane.
And what do you do at the end of one of those days? Do you head to the range? Do you head to the bar? Can these bring those little beverage carts out to the range so you can do both? Do you call your sports psychologist to receive the tough love you don’t want but need, or rely on your agent and manager and friends to tell you, hey, you’re still the man? There is no right response, because on days like this, there is no answer.
Then there was Griffin. He had quit the game not long ago only to realize the game was pulling him back, so he worked his way up from Korn Ferry Tour Q School to tour card to a solid freshman campaign. He contended last fall at the Bermuda Championship and has played well since, but a spot in Saturday’s final pairing would be his introduction to a wider audience.
Except as soon as he was introduced, Griffin exited stage right, unable to match the red numbers from Scheffler and Lee and Cam Davis. On a day when everyone else did what they wanted, Griffin was unable to do anything—just two birdies matched by two bogeys for a 72. Griffin goes from the final pairing on Saturday to playing two hours before it.
However, Griffin did not look beaten down afterwards. Instead he signed autographs. He chatted with acquaintances. He said something to his caddie that sent we-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this grins to both. Griffin knows Saturday wasn’t his day, but he headed to the parking lot with his head held high, because he knows tomorrow is a new day.