Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Stadium Course Weeds out Defending Champs

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Stadium Course Weeds out Defending Champs

Article excerpt

Byline: Bob Thomas, Times-Union sports writer

When it comes to golfers trying to successfully defend a The Players Championship title, the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course has provided an impenetrable defense.

In its 20-year history as the host to golf's greatest fields, no champion has successfully defended his title. Only three players -- Fred Couples, Steve Elkington and Hal Sutton -- have had their names engraved on the winning Waterford Crystal more than once.

Now comes the ultimate test -- Tiger Woods, the champion of successful title defenses, in defense mode.

Coming off last weekend's Bay Hill Invitational victory, his third consecutive at the Orlando home of Arnold Palmer, Woods is the odds-on favorite to do what no one has done before here. The world's top-rated player has active streaks of successful title defenses at four tournaments, and has successfully defended titles at seven different events in his career.

That includes three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur (1991-93) and U.S. Amateur (1994-96) titles, as well as four PGA Grand Slam crowns (1999-01) in a row.

Woods, however, has a healthy respect for the Stadium Course's ability to derail defense attempts.

"It's a very difficult golf course because a lot of different things can happen," Woods said at yesterday's defending champion press conference. "There's so much trouble out there that if you're not hitting the ball precise, you're not going to have a chance to contend on the back nine come Sunday.

"This golf course puts such a premium on ball-striking that, if you're just a little bit off . . ."

Players may end up like Elkington, Sandy Lyle, Jodie Mudd, Jerry Pate, Calvin Pete and Nick Price, all of whom missed the cut while attempting to defend their Players titles.

It's no surprise that the only two-time Players champions are among the best ball-strikers in professional golf. And it doesn't hurt that they are among the most experienced at getting around the Stadium Course: 50 combined starts.

"Experience is the big thing on this course, "Sutton said. "Over a certain number of years, you find out where to hit it and where not to hit it."

Sutton is one of four players who followed a victory with a top-10 finish, backing up his 2000 title with a tie for fifth last year. Tom Kite tied for fifth in 1990 after capturing the '89 title. Jacksonville's Mark McCumber followed his '88 hometown coronation with a tie for sixth in '89.

"Everyone who has played here a bunch knows what to expect," said Couples, who tied for 10th in '97 while defending his second title. "If it gets hard and crusty you know you're going to hit shots that end up in spots where you probably can't make a par and you accept that. You realize in real tough conditions 6- or 8-under might win. If you get a little rain and it softens up, 68s and 69s become good scores. …

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