This year as for the past several the media talked interminably about whether The Players should be designated the “fifth major.” To some this is a pointless exercise since the players themselves consider it to be very important tournament with far and away the strongest field, even the de facto holder of the title “major.” Most fans could care less and file the discussion in the same folder as doing something about slow play. Continue reading
The PLAYERS championship reiterated some facts about this game and as with many other things in life it is useful to identify these facts so that when they pop up again we don’t act totally surprised. Here they are in no particular order along with what passes for analysis but could just as well be labelled as opinion:
Number #1: Banning of the anchored stroke in 2016 was not as many opined the kiss of death for broomstick and belly putter devotees nor did it provoke millions to leave the game. Webb Simpson used a long putter to win the 2012 United States Open and was one of the prominent players who had to find a new way to putt. Now the method he employs is to brace the putter shaft along his left forearm with his right hand in a so-called claw grip and at The PLAYERS he found a way to get the ball in the hole with over nine strokes gained on the field for the week. At one point two years ago, Simpson had fallen to 177th in putting but has fought back with grit and determination.
Number #2: Even a penal golf course such as the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course becomes manageable—not easy by any stretch of the imagination but manageable–if the wind doesn’t blow and the greens are at least marginally receptive. Simpson won by four after rounds of 66, 63, 68 and a cautious 73. If you need proof, the most talked about 63 over the years probably has been Johnny Miller’s at Oakmont in final round of the 1973 U.S. Open. It is often overlook though that rain the night before plus uncontrolled sprinklers after lightning hit the control box turned Oakmont’s infamously rock-hard greens into the consistency of damp washcloths. Last week the Stadium course was manageable simply because the greens “sort of” held and the wind most of the time was less than 10 mph.
Number #3: The long ball is not a surefire answer to scoring so those who keep beating the drum that the ball goes too far are again missing the point…the object of the game is to get the ball in the hole not how far you can hit it with your driver. Webb Simpson’s distance for the week, an average of 280.6 yards, put him in dead last place in the field. He won because his driving accuracy and putting not to mention a mental discipline were so much better than everyone else…but then you knew that already.
Number #4: Next year The PLAYERS will be played in March when conditions in North Florida will be drastically different. Expect the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course to play longer because it will be softer and the ball won’t run out plus the temperatures will be lower, so the ball won’t fly as far. The largest change though will be in the wind which at that time of year typically is more from the north and stronger, so the players will face a test much closer to what designer Pete Dye envisioned. FYI number 16 plays to the southeast and 17 and 18 to the northwest.
Number #5: Tiger Woods may or may not win another major championship but at times he is playing some scintillating golf which at Sawgrass included a 65 on Saturday to make the cut on the number, 11 shots behind Simpson. Some took his performance as a sign “he’s back.” That would be nice, but The PLAYERS showed Woods has yet to prove he has exorcised all the mental and physical demons that will allow him to be in the hunt for his fifteenth major title. Though he managed ten under par over the weekend he couldn’t play better than middle-of-the-pack golf for the last six holes both days. He has a long way to go for his 15th major.
Image courtesy of the PGA TOUR
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.