KJ Choi finally put a major notch in his belt with his win of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. The stoic and stalwart Choi has been a steady and solid player for 14 years, and was the first South Korean to earn his PGA Tour card. Choi got the victory with steady play, a little creativity, and some help from David Toms.
Choi and Toms both finished the tournament at 13-under par on a challenging course that rewards accuracy and patience, including the iconic 17th par-3 water hole. Both Choi and Toms are among the leaders in fairway accuracy. Choi hit 71% of his fairways and hit 70% of his greens in regulation. Toms hit 79% of his fairways and had a 74% greens-in-regulation stat. Neither player is particularly long off the tee – Choi averaged 280 yards while Toms averaged only 276 yards. Both are well below average on the tour. But the big bombers all found trouble and it cost them, while the steady-eddies climbed to the top of the leaderboard.
It’s important to know what kind of course you are playing and how it fits with your tendencies. For most golfers driving accuracy is not a strength. So when the course is narrow or penalizing it’s a good idea to leave the driver in the bag until you reach the wide-open “green light” holes. That’s one of the components of patience. It’s a lot easier to make pars from the fairway than from trouble, and many times sacrificing 50 yards off the tee and having a longer iron into the green is a better risk/reward option than always trying to max out your distance and get as close to the green off the tee as possible.
I thought the turning point of the tournament was the par-5 16th hole. Toms made a critical course-navigation error, while Choi showed the importance of being able to hit creative shots.
Toms drove down the right side of the 16th and was faced with a 244-yard shot over water to the green. At that point he had a one-shot lead over Choi. Toms is a great wedge player, but in this case he elected to go for the green while Choi was in trouble left off the tee. Toms later explained that he his mindset was to win the tournament, and his strategy was to knock it on the green in two, make eagle or at worst birdie, and pull a little farther ahead of Choi, who looked like he was headed for par or bogie.
Instead Toms bailed on the shot with an indecisive swing. His ball found the water and he was forced to hit in from 158 yards – over the water again to a difficult pin tucked to the right, behind a bunker.
Toms is such a good wedge player that you have to question his strategy. If he’d been trailing by one shot I would have agreed with the aggressive approach. But with a one-shot lead the last thing you want to do is open the door for your opponent by bringing trouble into play. The more intelligent play would have been to lay up to his favorite wedge distance and let his short game do the talking.
Toms would have had to hit a 7-iron to around 80 yards, then his wedge onto the green. But it is so hard to step on your ego and hit two “little” shots when you know you can reach the green. But that’s when you need to exercise “circumstantial” management. Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.
In this case I think that decision cost Toms another major, because Choi hit his second shot back on the fairway where he had a shot at the green. Then Choi hit one of the best shots of the tournament.
From 72 yards out Choi was forced by an overhanging tree on the left to hit a low bump and run. He played his 9-iron well back in his stance and punched it 15 yards short of the green, bouncing it through the rough on the green, where it caught the slope and rolled to 8 feet. Suddenly Choi was putting for birdie while Toms was looking at bogie. Choi made par, but the damage was done and Toms had given up his lead.
I love creative shots like Choi’s bump and run. I have a 13-year old young man in my Coaching program, and not only do I encourage him to “play around” during practice by hitting unusual or challenging shots, I encourage all my student to emulate him and have more “fun” instead of working on swing mechanics all the time. Sooner or later you are going to need some creativity on your shots. The only “technique” you can perfect for these non-standard shots is to exercise your creativity. And that’s a great skill to have.
PS – For the record, there were 40 balls that found the water this week on that famous 17th hole.
The Armchair Golf Pro writes about PGA Tour events. Like you he is watching TV from his comfy armchair, enjoying the competition and drama, but also observing lessons that can be used to play better golf.