The United States National team walked off the bus into the searing Florida humidity, and entered into the more palatable confines of a 110,000 square foot clubhouse. The TPC Sawgrass golf course serves as the headquarters for the PGA Tour, and hosts the The Players' Championship. On Thursday it hosted guests from a somewhat different sporting background: Ten members of the MNT would be led on a tour with the chance to try a couple shots on one of golf's most iconic holes.
As it turned out, a fair amount of encouragement was included in the tour package.
"The game of golf welcomes you," TPC General Manager Bill Hughes told the players, introducing himself as a small crowd of onlookers gathered, camera phones at the ready.
The players then progressed to the gentleman's locker room, featuring lofted ceilings supported by thick slabs of brown wood. As the players proceeded to a separate locker room meant only for champions, a smiling and clearly excited bar employee managed a quiet "Go USA!"
The names on these lockers were much more recognizable. Several players had pictures taken in front of Jack Nicklaus' locker, as Hughes explained that the lockers of other past Players Championship victors are rotated out regularly.
Walking down the players' tunnel to the grounds of the course, large pictures of historical champions lined the walls. "These walls start to talk," Hughes told the players. He didn't mean it literally, but he could have. An office halfway down the tunnel posted a small American flag and a U.S. Soccer logo with a "Welcome" message taped in its entryway open, and it’s staff gathered there to wish the players good luck as they exited back into the heat.
Now it was time to have some fun.
After a short ride in a caravan of carts, the players arrived at the course's iconic 17th hole, where each had two attempts to hit a ball 127 yards over the water and on to the green. The only question, who would take the first shot?
A laughing John Brooks pushed Julian Green to the front of the group to volunteer, but the 18-year-old declined. Eventually Chris Wondolowski stepped up to the tee with a pitching wedge to take the first shot.He scuffed his first attempt, but followed up with a respectable second attempt (although it still didn’t find the green).
As it turned out, few players did much better. Michael Bradley and Guzan were the only pair to get the ball on the green, though the real star was goalkeeper coach Chris Woods. The Englishman slammed both his efforts near the pin.
Afterwards the players stayed after to talk with staff and friends of the course. Each received custom engraved bag tags as well as a story or two to tell.
"Taxi! Taxi," yelled Brad Guzan as the players, including Wondolowski, cracked up. "Take Wondo home!"- Alex Abnos