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Rory McIlroy, battling the elements.
Jacksonville Beach is holding firm.
It’s been raining now for two full days. Two-and-a-half, I guess, if you count Wednesday afternoon. TPC Sawgrass is underwater. The greens are puddles. All that green, green grass is intermixed with patches of mud. But some eight miles north, down the street from our rental unit, the sand on Jacksonville Beach is holding firm.
Extended rain delays are a rip in the fabric of the PGA Tour universe. There’s a natural rhythm to these things, carefully calibrated. Tee times aren’t programmed with a margin for error. Even when the weather is just right, it’s tough to get 144 players through TPC Sawgrass in a day. Once tee times get bumped, then bumped, then bumped again? Chaos.
What to do, if you’re a golfer? What to write about, if you’re a writer? You can only read so many weather reports. I can’t tell you any more than your apps.
James Colgan is here, too, impressed with Jacksonville Beach’s firm sand. He’s writing for the same website you’re currently reading. Colgan was here in 2020, too, covering his first PGA Tour event. We made plans to head to the course that Friday, that March 13th, pandemic eve. When Friday dawned, one group still had to finish their first round. They never got that chance. Now James has been here for four different tournament days, two sets of Thursdays and Fridays, two years apart. He has yet to see a tournament round completed.
We’re on the beach because we’ve snuck out in a moment of lighter rain. Neither media centers nor rental houses are meant to be sat in for too long, uninterrupted. It feels good to be out, but the lighter rain seems to be coming down harder. Still, the beach stays firm, the type of firm you’d see in a waste area, not a bunker. You could ride your bike on this sand, no problem. You could play a golf tournament on it, too, if it weren’t for the ocean, and gravity.
What do the players do on a free day like this? Half the field finished its first rounds on Thursday, which means half the field didn’t play any golf at all on Friday. I reach out to one caddie whose player is on the bench for the day. I’m imagining a caddie house getting into some shenanigans. He said they’d been watching Ozark. Next they were plotting a trip to the movies; The Batman beckons. Jax Beach is moving slowly.
Back at the house, the 2019 Players Championship is on. It’s tough to believe how much has changed. This tournament happened a hundred ago, but also just three.
There’s Eddie Pepperell, 14 under, chopping a chip shot out of the rough to the right of the 18th green. I know Eddie a bit; we were pen pals in early 2020. I send him a photo of the chip. He writes back.
“Right, right, right all the way up that hole…” Better than left, I point out.
That felt like a coming-out week for Pepperell. He’d played his way into the world top 50 and now, in his Players debut, he’d finished T3. An expanded American schedule potentially awaited. The pandemic was hard on the schedules of plenty of pros but hit few harder than Pepperell, who entered 2020 at the edge of the top 50 and now sits at the edge of the top 500.
Alan Shipnuck’s on the 18th tee, standing in the background of the shot. We were still months away from much talk of a Saudi-backed golf league. We were years away from Shipnuck’s impromptu chat with Phil Mickelson dealing that same league a serious blow.
Jim Furyk is in the group behind Pepperell, 49 years young and charging. He nearly fist-pumps a birdie putt on 17 that nearly goes in — and nearly tumbles into the water, too. He hits an aggressive tee shot on 18 and flags his approach, too, strutting after it as it settles to kick-in range.
There’s Rory McIlroy, hitting his tee shot into the 17th green. I realize with a start that I’m in the background, crouching at the edge of the tee box. I guess I’ve changed since then, too. It’d be fun if the golfers talked about how we’ve changed the way we talk about how they have. That Dethier seems to have lost his way, hasn’t he? I miss his old stuff…have to wonder if he’s getting complacent.
Jon Rahm comes through next. He was the 54-hole leader. Tied for the lead with eight to play. By now, though, he’s three back. He looks unmistakably younger, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. Maybe it’s the hair; he used to grow it longer. Now he keeps it high and tight.
Tommy Fleetwood is beside him in the final pairing; his tee shot at 17 lands pin-high on the plank bordering the green. Splash. Rahm follows on an aggressive line, but short. Splash.
Up ahead, McIlroy is positively strutting down the 18th fairway. He has less gray hair. He has more bounce. He needs just par to win, but there’s nothing safe about his approach, which somehow settles left of the left hole location, not far from the water. He bounces all the way down to the green. Ro-ry! Ro-ry! What a win this was.
My mind wanders, the way it has all day. It’s still raining, after all. I think to December, when I spoke to McIlroy and his caddie Harry Diamond at the Hero World Challenge. We talked about their partnership — and their dream to win a major championship together.
“Two guys that grew up together, from a small town in Northern Ireland? That’s a dream,” McIlroy said. “It’s not as if we haven’t won. I mean, we’ve won some big stuff together already. Just no majors.”
Diamond chimed in. “Everything but!”
McIlroy agreed. “Everything but.”
Everything but. The Players isn’t a major. But it’s the best of the rest. The top of the “everything but.”
Mike Tirico is back on the screen. Gary Young is, too, the rules official in charge of weather updates. It’s 2022 again. It’s Friday, too. Young declares that while we’re done for the day, they’re still hoping for a tournament conclusion before the end of the day on Monday. This, I guess, is supposed to be good news. Monday? Oh, right. Friday’s done, and the first round isn’t yet complete.
The next time I glance up, we’re back to a re-run from earlier in the round. Outside, rain patters on the windows, coming harder now. I wonder if the beaches are getting soggy. I doubt it. On the broadcast, in the past, the greens are just starting to puddle up.
I already know what’s going to happen next.
Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com. The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a 2014 graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.
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