It’s “All-World” at THE PLAYERS

This week is the almost-a-major started by former PGA Tour commissioner Dean Beman, THE PLAYERS played over the ever challenging TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course with perhaps the most famous hole in golf, the island green par-3 17th. Printable descriptions of Sawgrass, a creation of Pete and Alice Dye, might include long, fairly tight, lots of water and challenging greens.

The greens have all been redone since last year and several other changes will offer challenges to the field which includes 48 of the top 50 in the world rankings. In addition to new putting surfaces players will contend with a new lake between the sixth and seventh holes and the redesign of number 12 into a risk/reward drivable par-4.

Candidates to hoist the trophy next Sunday include last year’s champion Jason Day who at the time held the top spot in the world rankings. Unfortunately for Day his level of play so far in 2016-2017 after a back problem in the fall hasn’t been exactly stellar with only one top 10 and missing the cut at his last outing, the Zurich Classic.

And there’s another factor that doesn’t bode well for the Australian, no champion has ever successfully defended. In fact Rickie Fowler missed the cut in 2016 after his thrilling playoff win in 2015.

Speaking of Fowler he’s our pick for the most likely former winner to win at Sawgrass. Outside of the missed cut in New Orleans his worse finish since January was a tie for 16th at the WGC-Mexico Championship and includes his win at the Honda Classic plus a nice tie for 11th at the Masters.

In the mix come next Sunday but probably not in the running for various reasons are world number two Rory McIlroy, Olympic bronze medalist Justin Rose and Kevin Chappell a first time winner at the Valero Texas Open. Chappell was the runner-up in 2016 to Day so he plays the Dye’s creation well.

No discussion of potential winners would be complete without Jordan Spieth who had a win early in the year and five top-tens this season. His last five starts though are not exactly spectacular with a T-12, T-30, Cut, T-11 and fourth at the Zurich Classic. He’s such a good player though it’s tough to count him out of any competition.

Well any way now down to my picks.

Most Likely Former Champion to Win: Rickie Fowler as discussed above.

Most Likely Rookie to Win: Jon Rahm – Is there any other choice? Watching Rahm is exciting. He’s long off the tee, a crisp iron player, deft around the greens and a superb putter. Rahm was a factor at the Wells Fargo last week, finishing in fourth, even though he started the final round with a bogey plus on the par-5 sixth made a six and he is usually great on the par-5s.

Most Likely Recent Major Winner to win: Sergio Garcia – the volatile Spaniard hasn’t played in this country since his Masters win last month but seemed to exhibit a maturity in the taming of Augusta possibly related to his coming marriage and the influence of his fiancée. He was going to be my pick for THE PLAYERS until “All-World” Dustin Johnson returned to the Wells Fargo Championship.

Most Likely “Go to the Bank” Player to Win: Dustin Johnson – We all were wondering if the back injury from that fall the day before the Master began was Ok…it is. DJ, my new “All-World,” was masterful at the Wells Fargo attempting to make it his fourth win in a row. Though he wasn’t successful, his closing 67 was tied for low round of the day and put him in a tie for second. Rusty, maybe, sometimes having an issue with distance control with his irons but averaging almost 311 yards off the tee and hitting almost 60% of the fairways his game is obviously in shape to win at Sawgrass. This guy is really hard to bet against.

 

The Significance of the DJ Rule

The “DJ Rule.” The modification of the Rules of Golf by the United States Golf Association that took effect January 1 is important. In fact, it could be said as being very significant and not just as a simplification of the Rules we play by.

If you remember, in the final round of the U.S. Open last June, Dustin Johnson lined up a par putt on the fifth green and before he addressed the ball it rolled backwards, i.e. away from the hole, a tiny distance. Johnson immediately told a referee walking with him and fellow competitor Lee Westwood and the official simply asked if he had soled his putter behind the ball.

Johnson answered, “No,” which was quickly confirmed by Westwood. The official was satisfied and told Johnson to play on with no penalty.

Everyone thought that ended the incident until later as the duo walked on to the twelfth tee. Senior rules directors informed DJ there was a problem, namely there might be a penalty stroke added to his score for the incident seven holes previously.

According to the version of Rule 18-2 in effect at the time, on the putting green if a player caused a ball to move whether he meant to or not, he must put the ball back and add a stroke to his score. To complicate it further the rule contained the wording “more likely than not” as the standard the committee should apply in making their judgement.

The situation went from bad to worse since neither the average fan nor Johnson’s fellow competitors felt it neither sensible nor fair to overturn an on-the-spot referee’s judgement hours later. However, the Rules of Golf do specifically give the Committee the right to change a referee’s decision after a round based on their evaluation of the circumstances which often comes from studying videotape of the telecast.

A wait of seven holes to tell DJ he was in the crosshairs was beyond reasonable. The possibility of a penalty stroke left Johnson and the entire field in limbo as to where he and they stood in the most important championship of the year. To put it simply, the USGA wasn’t showing its best.

The incident proved again the myriad complications of the Rules of Golf cannot be passed off simply as the way to maintain the integrity of the game when it is a sport played out of doors with constantly changing conditions. Common sense should be factored in and thankfully Johnson, the phlegmatic South Carolinian, was able to overcome the uncertainty to win by four strokes though the record book shows the final margin was three.

Effective January 1 the USGA changed the language of Rule 18-2 so if the ball on the green is moved accidentally, whatever the cause, the player puts it back without a penalty…what I’m calling the “DJ Rule.” It fixes the previous inequity properly and is more realistic, more sensible and fairer.

Which brings us to the reasons why the DJ Rule is so significant.

First, the USGA was responsive to the howls of protest by everyone from golf fans to PGA Tour players. The Rule 18-02 change is eminently more realistic and perhaps best of all accomplished without waiting for the usual molasses-in-January quadrennial rules review. Quite properly the words “more likely than not,” used as justification in accessing the penalty on Johnson were dropped. No longer will Johnson or any player be convicted by inference and extrapolation rather than facts.

Secondly congratulations to the USGA who, without compromising the spirit of the game, are “significantly” reworking the Rules of Golf to make them more user-friendly with a preview of the changes next month.

Hopefully the redo will be along the lines of, “You start here and hit it until it goes in over there.”

Images courtesy of the USGA