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Sawgrass keeps pros on their toes

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Over the years they have come to grudgingly accept it, respect it, even like it. At least some of them.

When it comes to the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, the opinions vary as much as the style of play it takes to succeed on the venue that is home to the Players Championship.

The tournament commenced for the 33rd time on the famous -- or infamous -- course Thursday, and the scoring was plenty good.

But don't expect anyone to say they ever get completely comfortable here, even with plenty of experience.

"Visually it's awkward," said Rory McIlroy, who last year made the cut for the first time in four tries at the Players Championship and opened the tournament with a 70 on Thursday. "You got tee boxes lining you up in wrong directions and you're having to hit across a lot of fairways. The depth perception is hard and the way the trees are. It's just visually a typical Pete Dye golf course, visually very awkward."

Ah, Pete Dye. The Stadium Course designer whose name has been used in vain more than any other around these parts.

Interestingly, McIlroy won a major championship on a Dye course -- Kiawah -- and the 2012 BMW Championship at Crooked Stick in Indianapolis.

And yet TPC Sawgrass remains a champ at perplexing the best in the world.

Way back when it opened in 1982, the course had plenty of detractors. Mild-mannered Ben Crenshaw called it "Star Wars golf created by Darth Vader." Players, mostly, hated it. And some still do.

But over time, it has grown on the masses, become an iconic course, well-known because of the island par-3 17th -- controversial in its own right -- and regarded as an interesting test of the players' skill.

"This is a nice golf course in the fact that you've got to get your mind in gear on the first tee and not switch it off until you walk off the 18th green," said Lee Westwood, who opened with a 67 and trails 18-hole leader Martin Kaymer by 4 shots. "There isn't a hole out there that's one you can play brain-dead. You've got to focus and it gets your full attention from the word go."

A couple of examples of how the venue has caused fits for the world's best:

Tiger Woods, who finished second in 2000 and won in 2001, barely contended over the next decade but won last year.

Phil Mickelson has seven top-10 finishes, but none since his only victory in the 2007 tournament. He shot 75 on Thursday.

Woods, who is unable to defend his title due to back surgery on March 31, might have said it best last year.

"Everyone who has played here ... they have never really been that consistent," Woods said. "I mean, everyone. Going from the time Jerry Pate won [in 1982], no one has really contended here 70, 80 percent of the time. Some golf courses you get guys playing well there no matter what. Not this one."

Russell Henley missed the cut in his only appearance at the Players Championship a year ago but sits in second place after Round 1.

He opened Thursday with a 7-under-par 65 that included a double-bogey on the seventh hole and said he developed a different strategy with his caddie this time.

"I think I was a little bit too aggressive last year on a couple of holes," he said. "Maybe playing the holes a little less aggressive has helped me to stay in there and make some pars."

Of course, it's just one round.

Masters champion Bubba Watson, who shot 69 on Thursday but whose best finish in six tries is a tie for 37th with three missed cuts, is perhaps the best example of a player who simply has difficulty coming to terms with what the course presents.

"I haven't played very well around here," Watson said prior to the tournament. "It's very challenging for me. When I look down No. 1 and No. 10, it's hard to tell the fairway and the rough. It all kind of blends together. I don't like to look at a tree and aim at a tree. I like to see the lay of the land and that's how I hit my shots. So it's very difficult when you look at a golf course like that."

And that, among many things, is what Dye has attempted to achieve over the years.

"The thing that gets to a good player is fear," Dye, who is now 88, told Golf Digest. "I try to make things look hard, but play easy. I think people misinterpret what I try to do. My courses aren't really that hard. They just look hard."

The place didn't look too hard on Thursday. Kaymer tied the course record. Henley shot 65 and 67 players in the 144-man field were under par.

But as is usually the case around here, that's no reason to get complacent.