PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Amid lingering fallout from his bad Masters drop and following a rare stroll down the red carpet earlier this week, Tiger Woods can finally focus on golf again. And even though his record in The Players Championship isn’t sparkling, he’ll be wearing the favorite’s tag when play starts at TPC Sawgrass Thursday.
Woods has one win in 15 Players appearances, back in 2001, when he was at his dominant best. Since then, he’s been near the lead just once (eighth in 2009), withdrew in 2010 and 2011, and tied for 40th last year.
“It’s a tricky kind of golf course,” Woods said Tuesday, after a four-hole practice round. “You have to drive the ball really well, and [if] you miss these greens at all, you’ve got some of the weirdest little shots that you’ll ever face.”
Woods arrived in the area after spending Monday night in New York City with Lindsey Vonn at the punk-themed Met Gala. Admittedly not much of a fashion fan, he said he was supporting his new girlfriend, who has a perfume and makeup line she’s promoting.
It’s been three weeks since Woods tied for fourth at the Masters, a tournament in which he was penalized two strokes before the third round for playing a shot from the wrong position after taking an improper drop the day before. The debate over whether Woods received a fair ruling at Augusta still hasn’t died down.
“Yeah, actually I am [surprised the topic has lingered],” Woods said. “I think Fred [Ridley, the Masters rules committee chairman] explained it pretty well. For some reason, evidently that wasn’t accepted.”
The Players marks the 300th career PGA Tour tournament for Woods, who has 77 wins. But like so many of his A-list peers (Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson to name a few), he’s had a hard time figuring out Pete Dye’s design gem.
“Some of the years I’ve driven it well and not hit my irons well, and other years I’ve hit the ball great and not putted well, and other years I drove it awful and didn’t score well,” Woods said. “You’ve got to have all facets of your game going here.”
Love is in the air
After missing 13 weeks following spinal fusion surgery, Davis Love is simply happy to be back playing, eager to compete, and hopefully pain free. That his first start post-surgery will come at the Players brings added meaning since with it he will match Ben Crenshaw’s tournament record with his 28th consecutive start. Love’s Players debut came in 1986; he won in 1992 and 2003.
“Obviously it was a big point in the schedule that I didn’t want to miss,” Love said.
What are his thoughts on making 28 consecutive Players starts?
“One, that means you’re old. And two, it means you’ve stayed pretty competitive,” said Love, who turned 49 last month. “I’m hoping that after this and the hard work I’ve put in, it’s just going to get better for a while.”
Love knew as early as 2000 that he’d eventually need the surgical procedure, which fused two disks in his back. After three sluggish tournaments to open his season (two missed cuts, plus a withdrawal) he figured the time had come. Assuming he plays this week, Love also will inch closer to the record for most Players starts; Jay Haas has played in 29.
A repeat feat?
The Players Championship has been held every year since 1974 (won by Jack Nicklaus, the only three-time champion), and Matt Kuchar will try to do something this week that’s never been done. As the defending champion, he’s attempting to win back-to-back Players.
“They tell me nobody’s defended the title. I think it’s going to be fun to at least try,” said Kuchar, who also participated in a ceremony on Tuesday that unveiled his champions’ portrait.
Kuchar won the Match Play Championship this season, and tied for eighth at the Masters. A former Ponte Vedra Beach resident who lives up the road in Sea Island, Ga., he now has his sights set on a repeat.
“I’ve been playing some good golf, it’s been a nice start to my year,” Kuchar said. “I think this is a great opportunity.”
More than 10 inches of rain has fallen on the Stadium Course since Thursday — turning the par-3 17th into a true island for a brief stretch — but players were impressed at how quickly things have dried out. “I’m shocked with how good the course looks,” said Brandt Snedeker. “You would have thought today playing out there it didn’t have any rain at all. It was bone dry.” This week’s forecast is quite good, with no rain expected until late Sunday, and highs in the low 80s . . . Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour, reiterated the tour’s opposition to the proposed ban on anchoring put forth by the US Golf Association and the R&A. But Finchem said he’ll wait for the governing bodies to complete their process before discussing publicly what the tour might do should the ban be voted in . . . There won’t be a repeat this week by Kevin Na, who publicly struggled while contending at last year’s Players with a preshot routine that featured hitches, glitches, and pseudo-whiffs, drawing equal parts scorn and sympathy. Na’s routine has improved, for starters. But he’s out with a back injury, and has been limited to just eight starts. He hasn’t played since the Masters . . . Webb Simpson, Jim Furyk, Justin Rose, and Finchem were a few of the big names who put on caddie bibs Tuesday, carrying clubs and supporting their spouses in the annual tournament for the PGA Tour Wives Association, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary . . . Derek Ernst, last week’s surprise winner at Quail Hollow, has received a steady stream of congratulations on his first PGA Tour victory. But the soon-to-be-22-year-old rookie is also learning that making a name for himself doesn’t happen overnight. He posted a picture to his Twitter account Tuesday of his assigned locker at the Players, which features the name David Ernst.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer. Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.