The Players Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
THE arguments will continue about the status of the Players Championship, still dubbed by many as golf’s fifth major, but the one thing of which you can be in no doubt whatsoever is that the latest edition will see much drama unfold, particularly over the closing three holes - the par-five 16th, the iconic island green par-three 17th and the potentially treacherous final par-four 18th, with water all the way down the left waiting to swallow up any wayward drive or approach.
There have been some incredible finishes over the years at TPC Sawgrass, with many dreams of glory coming to grief at the 17th which, on the face of it, is a straightforward par three. But many players seem to lose all sense of reason when they climb onto the tee. It is certainly not a favourite hole of Sergio Garcia, but Rickie Fowler will remember it for all the right reasons after his victory here in 2015. Five strokes behind Garcia as he walked to the par-three 13th, the American was out of it. But then something happened.
He birdied the 13th, parred the 14th, birdied the 15th and eagled the 16th. He couldn’t, could he? He most certainly could. By now, Fowler was unstoppable as he birdied the 17th and 18th holes for a remarkable round of 67. Garcia and Kevin Kisner each birdied the 16th and 17th holes and there was a three-way tie as 12-under 276.
But still Fowler wasn’t finished. There was a three-hole playoff over the 16th, 17th and 18th holes. Fowler had birdied the 17th in regulation, then again in the playoff (as did Kisner). Now a sudden death back at 17, Fowler for a third time in less than an hour stuffed his shot within seven feet, made his third birdie, and prevailed when Kisner missed. During the week, Fowler birdied the 17th five out of the six times he played the hole.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” said Fowler. “I’d say this is a pretty big one.” It was surely the best finish the tournament has ever seen.
It would be pushing it to expect a repeat this year, but who knows? This tournament has a habit of producing the goods and there will most definitely be some drama.
It was won in 2018 by Webb Simpson, in 2017 by Si Woo Kim, in 2016 by Jason Day, in 2015 by Fowler, in 2014 by Martin Kaymer, in 2013 by Tiger Woods, in 2012 by Matt Kuchar and in 2011 by KJ Choi. There have been some surprise winners over the years - nobody would ever have forecast Kim’s victory, or those of Stephen Ames, Tim Clark, Fred Funk or Craig Perks. But it does prove that, if it’s your week, anybody can enjoy a life-changing week at Sawgrass.
The chances are that it will be won by a household name. Take your pick - Woods, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Bryson DeChambeau, Kuchar, Day, Marc Leishman, Cameron Champ, Garcia, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton, Phil Mickelson.
Kuchar has had a start to the season that he will not forget in a hurry. On the plus side, he has already won twice. But he found himself at the centre of an ongoing row about the fee he paid a local caddie when he won the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico last November. Kuchar is one of the nicest men on the PGA Tour but the adverse publicity has clearly had a huge impact on him, both as a man and as a golfer. He has now coughed up $50,000 to the caddie who carried his bag in Mexico and hoped that the fuss would die down. He received a warm welcome at the WGC-Mexico Championship but was subjected to a torrent of abuse at the Genesis Open the previous week.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Kuchar’s original decision to pay the caddie “only” $5,000, this is a man who raises tens of thousands of dollars for charity. He does so quietly and without fuss and deserves to be given the opportunity to move on. Hopefully, it will happen at TPC Sawgrass and he is able to put this behind him once and for all.
The field gathered for the Players is the strongest of the year and picking a winner is a real lottery but Justin Rose must be worth a flutter, for no reason other than the fact that he simply doesn’t make mistakes. He will love the challenge presented by the 17th and it would be a huge surprise to see him hitting balls into the water when the pressure is really on. When all is said and done, this is not golf’s fifth major, and Sawgrass may be a visual treat, but it is a stadium course and simply not in the same class as the golf courses used to host the sport’s majors. Bay Hill, Muirfield Village, Harbour Town are all better courses. Much better courses. But here’s the thing - none of them have the capacity to produce the sort of drama or thrilling finishes that we saw from Fowler in 2015. And that is why so many people love the Players Championship.
It is normally played in May but has been moved forward to accommodate the new scheduling of the US PGA Championship. It also means that Simpson’s reign as champion will be shortened by two months. Simpson had endured almost five years without a win before last May’s triumph at TPC Sawgrass. He will also be playing for a new trophy, as well. The crystal that he hoisted last year has been replaced by a sterling silver trophy dipped in 24-karat gold vermeil.
Nobody has gone back-to-back at TPC Sawgrass and Simpson can’t wait to return. He has already been back for a look at the course. “The course is in phenomenal shape,” Simpson said. “I’ve been living at Quail Hollow since 2010, so I’m familiar with the overseeding process and how tricky it can be, and how you need a lot of things helping you, weather and rain and all that kind of stuff. It looks like they’ve done a phenomenal job here.
“I think the new date is actually going to make the event even bigger and more special, and I think more attention will be on it because…this is the first really big tournament of the year,” Simpson said. “I think that's special knowing that when the guys come here, they know that the best players in the world are going to be here for the first time maybe all season competing for the trophy.”
Cooler weather and softer fairways will make the Stadium Course play longer and force players to hit driver more often. The final two holes, which usually played downwind in May, are more likely to play into the wind during the earlier date, making one of golf’s most famous finishing stretches even tougher.
Justin Rose. Should have a better record here than he does
Sergio Garcia. Has suffered all possible highs and lows here
Justin Rose. Impossible not to pick him
Sergio Garcia. Needs to keep counting to 10
Rory McIlroy. Good start to the season
Rickie Fowler. Peerless memories from 2015
Webb Simpson. Probably surprised even himself last year
Justin Thomas. Just so, so good
Dustin Johnson. Will surely win here some time
Ian Poulter. Course is made for him
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