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Sawgrass presents a major challenge

Rather like wee Jimmy Krankie brandishing a cut-throat razor, the island green of the 17th at Sawgrass is short and full of menace.

Stephen Gallacher is looking forward to making his debut at Sawgrass   Photograph: Getty
Stephen Gallacher is looking forward to making his debut at Sawgrass Photograph: Getty

It is that time of the year again when the golfing ghouls gather round the Stadium course's 137-yard penultimate hole to whoop and holler as a series of nervy tee-shots gurgle their last in a watery grave.

The Players' Championship, which gets underway this week, has always caused something of a splash. It's big and it's bold; an event that, traditionally, is illuminated by the sheer strength of its field while the whopping purse of $10 million, and a first prize of $1.8m, makes it one of the richest in the game. It may not have been officially anointed as "the fifth Major", but The Players' Championship remains a major attraction.

As for the course itself? Well, like that aforementioned 17th, it's a case of hit or miss. Statements like "90% horse manure, 10% luck", and "they ruined a perfectly good swamp", are hardly what you would call ringing endorsements, but Pete Dye's idiosyncratic and intriguing design has always polarised opinion. There is no doubting the stiffness of the challenge it poses, however.

Since Sawgrass first hosted the championship in 1982 - it had been staged at a variety of venues since its inception in 1974 before settling in this corner of Florida - there has never been a back-to-back champion and only five of the 32 winners have won twice. Tiger Woods, the reigning champion who is recovering after back surgery, captured his first Players' title in 2001 but had to wait 12 years to land a second.

Experience and a knowledge of Sawgrass's various nooks and crannies tends to be a feature of recent champions. Prior to Woods' win 12 months ago, seven of the previous eight champions had made a minimum of seven appearances in the championship before winning, with Matt Kuchar, the 2012 champion, finally making the breakthrough at the eighth attempt.

In 1987, it was Scotland's very own Sandy Lyle who made a breakthrough of a different kind. His nerve-jangling win in a play-off ended the American stranglehold of the event as he became its first overseas winner.

"I often look at a poster that I still have on a wall at home with my winning score of 14 under par on it and wonder how the hell I got around that course in that score," reflected Lyle, who would go on to snuggle himself into Augusta's famed green jacket at the Masters the following year. "I was amazed because I couldn't see how that layout could suit my game. It is just relentless and by that I mean relentless trouble, with water everywhere."

A quarter of a century after Lyle's trail-blazing triumph, his countryman Martin Laird came close to emulating that conquest when he took the runners-up spot behind Kuchar. Sawgrass has been something of a happy hunting ground for the three-time PGA Tour champion and a closing 67 last season propelled Laird up into a share of fifth.

For another Scot, Stephen Gallacher, pictured, the trip to Florida will be a step into the unknown. He is getting used to taking them. Last month, it was a debut appearance in the Masters. Next up is The Players' Championship.

"I've seen so much of it on the TV that I feel I almost know the course already, a bit like the Masters in that respect," said Gallacher, who is enjoying the forays in the USA that have come with his rise into the upper reaches of the world rankings. "It's quite reinvigorating to be having these new experiences. When you play a bit better, the reward is that you get to play in the bigger tournaments against the best in the world. That's what you want to be doing."

That, and staying out of the water, of course.

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