Craig Perks almost gave away the Players Championship during the first 15 holes of the final round, missing fairway after fairway and yipping a couple of two-footers, but he redeemed himself with a string of dramatic hole-outs on the final three holes at the TPC at Sawgrass. Two of those shots, the pitch-in for eagle at 16 and the par-saving pitch at 18 (above), were almost identical. The technique that Perks used for both wasn't anything special, but the circumstances were extraordinary.
Perks never should have needed that final hole-out. Ahead by two strokes on the tee of the watery 18th, he should have used an iron instead of a driver, which he launched way right into the trees. (An equally off-line iron would have come up well short of the forest.) I was particularly horrified to see him contemplate hitting his second under the low-hanging limbs toward the green, probably because I can sympathize with the frazzled mind-set that can come with inexperience. On the opening hole at my first Tour event, the 1987 Anheuser-Busch Classic, I was so shaky that I had trouble putting my ball on the tee. Instead of stepping back, I rushed my routine and my swing, resulting in a terrible shot. The lesson? Pressure induces fast (and often dumb) thinking, so when the heat is on, slow down.
It was entertaining, but not surprising, to see the pros skate lag putts 10 feet past the hole and yip three-footers. By Sunday the greens at Sawgrass were so crusty and baked out that it was like putting on linoleum, and I'm exaggerating only slightly. Superslick surfaces make even the Tour pros fret, forcing them to use a jabby stroke that has little or no acceleration and propels the ball off-line. Last week almost every player—not just Phil Mickelson—had a couple of unsightly misses from inside the leather. There are two keys to handling slick greens. First, to control your rhythm and generate an effectively lazy stroke, you need soft hands and forearms and as little tension as possible in your body. To do that, pretend that the putter is a tube of toothpaste and you don't want to squeeze any of the paste out. Second, play more break than normal, allowing gravity to pull the ball down to the hole.
If you could take away the crowd, the situation and the watery panorama, the 17th hole is a piece of cake, at least for pros. I learned this a decade ago while teaching at Sawgrass. Late one night some students and I journeyed onto the course and teed off with glow-in-the-dark balls. Because I couldn't see the water, I didn't feel a pang of fear and poked a wedge to 10 feet. But put me in Perks's pressure-packed situation, and I'd probably still be out there trying to hit the green.