PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The PGA Tour has a pretty cool annual tradition every year in advance of the Players Championship. On the eve of the opening round, they gather every player in the field playing the tournament for the first time on the lawn outside the clubhouse for interviews.
Chad Ramey is one of the 31 first-timers competing on the famous TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course vying for the lion’s share of the $25 million purse, and he’s leading the tournament after Thursday’s first round, carding a spotless 8-under 64 and looking as comfortable as someone who was playing in his 10th Players Championship.
Ramey, a 30-year-old from Mississippi who got into the field via his victory at the 2022 Corales Puntacana Championship, made it look rather easy.
“No, not easy, not easy at all,’’ Ramey said. “It was fun, first time to shoot a score on such an iconic course like this. You can’t ask for any more. There’s no doubt it gives me confidence. Deep down, I believe I belong out here.’’
So does Nico Echavarria, whose life changed with his win in Puerto Rico, and Eric Cole, who finished runner-up at the Honda Classic two weeks ago.
“Life is incredible, because it can change any moment, any week any day, and it did for me on Sunday in Puerto Rico,’’ said Echavarria, who shot a 1-under 71 Thursday.
The 28-year-old from Colombia moved to Ponte Vedra Beach two years ago to hone his game on the world-class TPC facilities. Had he not qualified for the tournament, though, he said was going to leave town this week.
“You want to be playing against the best in the world, and you feel like you’re missing out,’’ Echavarria said. “I told my girlfriend that the only way we were going to come if I’m not playing is if Tiger [Woods] was playing. He’s not, but I am and we’re here.”
The week before he won his first PGA Tour event, Echavarria missed the cut at the Honda Classic by nine shots and described himself as being “in a bad state of mind.’’
That’s when his coach, Hernan Rey, had such a profound effect on him that Echavarria broke down into tears recounting it while speaking to The Post.
“On Friday after I missed the cut [Rey] asked me, ‘You want to hit balls right now? It’s 90 degrees outside and you just missed the cut by a bunch and you’re probably feeling like s–t,’ ’’ Echavarria recalled. “I had the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other and thought, ‘Why the hell is this guy telling me this? I just want to get out of here.’”
“I went with the gut feeling like, ‘Why not? It can’t get any worse than this.’ After that range session, he told me, ‘We’re switching the missed cut to a positive week. This is gonna change the year, because you just put the effort that a lot of people wouldn’t put in.’ I went back to practice again on Saturday at Honda and I took a picture of my hands and they were bloody … ’’
Echavarria then stopped speaking, having difficulty composing himself as he began to cry.
When Cole, who shot 73 Thursday, lost to Chris Kirk in a playoff at Honda, he found a way through “conflicted emotions’’ to be thankful about his best-ever PGA Tour result and the nearly $1 million he won for it, because it opened doors like the one to this week’s marquee event.
Cole, the son of former LPGA star Laura Baugh, has played in so many mini-tour events he’s lost count of how many times he’s won.
“I don’t know exactly what the number is, but it’s probably in the 80 to 90 range,’’ he said.
But life for these guys can changes pretty quickly.
“It’s really slow and seems like it’s not going to happen and then when it does it does seem pretty quick,’’ Cole said. “But it’s something that you’ve looked forward to for so long that when it does get here you try to take a little bit of time and think of all the times that you wished to be here and to not take it for granted.”
Erik Barnes, a 35-year-old from Kalamazoo, Mich., who’s been playing on the Korn Ferry Tour for the past eight years, takes nothing for granted.
During the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no tournaments to play and a wife and two boys to support, he took a job at a Publix supermarket stocking shelves for $15 an hour.
“I didn’t know how long COVID was going to last, but I knew exactly how much money we had,’’ Barnes told The Post. “I would have done it as long as I had to do it, and fortunately it didn’t last three years.’’
Asked what he hopes to parlay this week into, Barnes, who was 1-over-par through 14 holes before the first round was suspended due to darkness, said, “A career.’’