News & Opinion

McCarron embraces encore at Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Let’s crack the code of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and figure out what kind of player might win here.

Playing from the short grass is key. How about a player who hits 73.5 percent of the fairways? Only Henrik Stenson, at 76.8 percent, finds more on the PGA Tour.  

Hitting greens in regulation is vital since there are so many places around where getting up and down is less likely than Iran landing an NFL expansion franchise. So how about a player who hits 72.22 percent of the greens in regulation? Stenson leads the PGA Tour in that category, too, also at 72.22 percent.

Distance is not a must. Former Players champs Tim Clark, Justin Leonard and Fred Funk were relative bunters. So how about a player who averages 292.4 yards off the tee? That would rank 131st on the PGA Tour driving stats, one spot ahead of Si Woo Kim, last year’s Players champion.

Scott McCarron
Scott McCarron claims little success at TPC Sawgrass, but he appears to be better suited as a senior for the Stadium Course.

© GOLFFILE/RICHARD MARTIN-ROBERTS
Scott McCarron claims little success at TPC Sawgrass, but he appears to be better suited as a senior for the Stadium Course.

Meet your possible 2018 Players champion: Scott McCarron. Whether an exclamation point or a question mark should follow McCarron’s name in that sentence is your call.

Yes, McCarron is alive and well and playing in the Players (tee times). How and why? McCarron won the Senior Players Championship last year on the Champions Tour. It’s one of the tour’s five designated major championships and the winner, normally someone named Langer, gets a date with the Stadium Course this week.

Bernhard Langer is still King of the Hill on the senior tour, but McCarron is King 1A. He’s 52 and has won six times, including that aforementioned designated major. McCarron won three times on the PGA Tour, twice in the now-defunct BellSouth Classic. He was best-known for being a big hitter who wielded a long putter, an opinionated talker who never lacked self-confidence and a player who wore his emotions on his sleeve. 

I am not suggesting that McCarron will win the Players. He didn’t have much of a track record here in his prime. He made only four cuts in 13 tries, with a best finish of T-35. “Luckily, I’m old and have a bad memory,” he said with a laugh.

The point of the exercise, other than making Stenson look like an obvious pick, is to point out how McCarron might be better suited to the Stadium Course now than before. 

“It was always a very difficult course for me back,” said McCarron, who last competed here in 2010. “I’ve always been a guy who moves the ball left-to-right, a cutter, and some of these holes didn’t fit my eye, like 2 and 10. I was one of the longer guys on Tour, and I hit driver everywhere. This is a course that you’ve got to take what it gives you. I’m going to lay back and try to hit the fairway.”

McCarron hits his irons the same distance as in his prime. His 9-iron still goes 140 yards, as always. He credits that to being in better shape than he was during his PGA Tour career, and he credits that to competing with the 60-year-old Langer, a wonder of the world.

“If you’re going to beat him,” McCarron said with a grin, “you’d better be in good shape. Nobody works harder than him. He’s like my hero. He doesn’t let anything bother him.”

That’s a skill that McCarron learned while working for Golf Channel and Fox Sports during the past few years. McCarron remembers walking with Dustin Johnson in the final group at Oakmont during the 2016 U.S. Open.

“On the 12th tee, I looked at D.J. and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ and he goes, ‘A rules official thinks my ball might’ve moved on the green, but I didn’t do anything. It’s no big deal,’ ” McCarron said. “I couldn’t believe it. I would’ve been in a tizzy. All he could control were his own emotions and how he went about his business the rest of the way. That was extremely impressive, and I thought, When I play, I’ve got to let things bother me less. I definitely could get hot. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still get a little hot, but I’m able to get over it quicker now.”

His Exhibit A is the 1999 Masters. He played in the final pairing in Saturday’s third round with Jose Maria Olazabal, the eventual winner, when he birdied the 11th hole to take the lead and arrived at the 12th tee to see Greg Norman hit a ball over the 12th green into the pine straw — and never find it.

“I’m there for 20 minutes, the wind swirling, everything going through my head,” McCarron said. “I hit a bad shot long and found it but came back to the tee to play and made triple bogey. It’s Saturday, I’m near the lead, I’m still in it. But I let it affect me. I made a bunch of bogeys coming in and went from leading to shooting 76. I wish I could go back with my attitude now and handle it better.”

McCarron, a UCLA alumnus, never intended to get out of golf as he waited to turn 50 and tried TV broadcasting. “I still wanted to play,” he said. “I approached the announcing gig as, What can I learn from watching the best players that can help me on the Champions Tour? And it did help me.”

Now he’s enjoying a new career on the senior circuit and this week, an encore performance at the Stadium Course. 

“I never thought I would have a chance to come back and play this tournament,” McCarron said. “It really is kind of a dream come true.”

Today brings a wakeup call. McCarron can’t wait. “This is fun,” he said.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle