Five Things You Need to Know about THE PLAYERS Championship
A robust field chock full of heavyweights travels to TPC Sawgrass this week, the home club of the PGA Tour, to play the Stadium Course for THE PLAYERS Championship. THE PLAYERS is not a Grand Slam event, but victory here can be a career-defining moment. The Stadium Course favors no particular player or style of play, but opinions on its caliber range from prestigious architectural design to unflattering rancor spiced with R-rated four-letter words. Wild finishes, spectacular wins, and devastating heartbreaks are the norm, and the theater is time and again richly dramatic. Here are five things you need to know about the 45th edition of THE PLAYERS Championship.
Greenside view of the Iconic 17th Hole
Inside the Field
It’s rare for any event – even a major championship – to feature every single player from the top-50 in the OWGR, but that’s exactly what we’re getting this week. Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, and Justin Rose all have the chance to unseat current World No. 1 Dustin Johnson. Rory McIlroy has the best cumulative score to par at TPC Sawgrass over the last five years but victory has eluded him. Tiger Woods returns for the first time since 2012, and the two-time champion can join Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win this event three times. Si Woo Kim became the youngest player to win THE PLAYERS last year, and will attempt to become the first player in history to successfully defend his title.
If you think the best players in the world aren’t affected by the company they keep, think again. Since 2013, players ranked fifth or better in the OWGR are almost 70-percent more likely to finish inside the top-20 when they’re in the same group with another top-five player. Thomas, Spieth, and McIlroy are one of these megawatt groups to watch this week, and Jordan might be the player with the most to prove. Spieth is the only player in the top-15 to not win since last August. All eyes will also be on the Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Rickie Fowler grouping, and that could be ominous for Rickie. Tiger isn’t the same intimidating force he once was. However, for whatever reason, playing in the same group with Mickelson leads to higher scores. Tiger and Phil have played in the same group 32 times, with Lefty signing for a lower score 15 times, Tiger 14 times, and three times they shot the same score. Woods holds the edge in scoring average: 69.41 to 69.66.
TPC Sawgrass: A Fair Test or Tricked-Up?
Pete Dye’s 7,189 yard, par-72 Stadium Course is balanced with a variety of short, medium, and long holes within the par-3, par-4 and par-5 categories. There are both right and left doglegs. No two consecutive holes ever play in the same direction so the wind has a balanced influence on the field. The layout is often referred to as a second shot golf course, but if the first shot doesn’t land in the correct place, the second shot will be a prelude to big numbers. There are risk-reward holes, intimidating shots, and a lot of water. The Stadium Course can be a complete test of golf. Unfortunately, it can also be disastrously unfair and an exercise in futility. Gusting winds, shameful pin positions, and lightning quick greens took the challenge to sadistic levels two years ago, and the criticism was justified. This is a Jekyll and Hyde track. If it plays too soft it can be a monotonous birdie-fest. If it plays to firm it becomes unplayable. For THE PLAYERS to truly identify the best player this week course set-up will be crucial.
18Birdies Caddy+ view of No.16 at TPC Sawgrass
Should THE PLAYERS be a Major Championship?
THE PLAYERS arguably boasts the strongest field in golf. The $10.5 million purse is the second richest all season. The course is recognized as one of the toughest on the planet. But should it be a major championship? The Masters wasn’t intended to be a major championship, it evolved into one. The PGA Championship started off as a match-play event in 1916 before switching to stroke-play in 1958. One of the things that sets the majors apart is that history makes the current year’s championship and certainly future ones all the more special, and THE PLAYERS history checks off all the boxes. It has the cash, it has the kudos, and it has the character. It already feels like a major championship for fans and players alike, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s elevated to major status.
That 17th Hole
Virtually every hole on The Stadium Course presents considerable pitfalls for players. Under the crucible of final round pressure, however, none will test the nerves quite like the fabled island green at No. 17. The original plan for No. 17 called for the hole to be only partially surrounded by a lake, but during construction, a crater was dug around the green, and Pete Dye’s wife Alice suggested leaving the hole like that. This 137 yard, par-3 demon isn’t long, and the green is larger than most putting surfaces at TPC Sawgrass. However, when the unpredictable winds start gusting, the hole can play as many as three clubs different. Last year a staggering number of balls wound up in the water – 69 to be exact. That was the second highest total since the Tour officially started keeping track in 2003. That fact might send a few shivers down players’ spines as they walk from the 16th green to the 17th tee box.
Nine of the last 14 winners at TPC Sawgrass came in ranked inside the top-10 in Greens-In-Regulation. 10 of the last 14 winners ranked inside the top-10 in Scrambling, including seven of the last eight. Who checks off those boxes this week? The player you arguably expect to be the next big name to win again sometime soon: Jordan Spieth. Spieth is ranked first in Scrambling and third in Greens-In-Regulation. Jordan missed the cut last week at the Zurich Classic, and has missed the cut in his last three appearances at THE PLAYERS. However, I just have the feeling this is going to be his week. Look for duel between Spieth and Phil Mickelson on Sunday evening with Jordan raising PGA trophy number 12.