While not officially a major, THE PLAYERS Championship has all the appearances of one, awarding a $11 million dollar purse, and fielding every member of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
With such a prominent field, the cream often rises to the top, but not always, as we saw last year with Si Woo Kim, and we have seen in the past with such unexpected winners such as KJ Choi in 2011 (having not won an event in three years), Tim Clark in 2010 (having never won an event), and the epitome of a surprise champion, nearly unknown Craig Perks in 2003.
As always, Florida’s iconic TPC Sawgrass administers an unmatched challenge to the best of the best in professional golf. Many of those elites have been outright puzzled by this course: Phil Mickelson struggles here, as does World No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
Bubba Watson has never finished inside the top 30, and Jordan Spieth has somehow missed the cut the past three years. It is an event worthy of an all-capitalized name and one of the richest payouts in professional sports.
Here are some of the more intriguing storylines in this year’s much-anticipated edition:
1. KIM DEFENDS
If someone was to say that Si Woo Kim’s three-stroke victory at last year’s PLAYERS Championship came completely out of nowhere, it could be argued that they are both right and wrong.
The then 21-year-old Kim had made noise on Tour before; four years earlier, at the age of 17, he became the youngest player to earn his PGA Tour card, and while he was mostly anonymous for several years after, he had a breakthrough win at the 2016 Wyndham Championship, an event where he shot a second round 60.
On the other hand, coming into THE PLAYERS, Kim had shown absolutely nothing resembling good form. To be frank, he was downright abysmal. He started off his 2017 season well, finishing T10 at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. From the CIMB to THE PLAYERS, Kim played in 17 events. In those 17 starts, he made the cut in just seven of them, and two of those seven “made cuts” were times that he finished near the bottom of a no-cut event’s leaderboard.
Statistically, he was a disaster in that span, and his best finish was a pedestrian T22 at the Valero Texas Open, with no other finishes better than 30th. In respect to his form, the PLAYERS victory was out of nowhere. After the win, he went back to mostly awful, finishing better than 40th in just one of his final 11 events of the season, that being when he contended at the U.S. Open through three rounds before a final round 75 knocked him back to T13.
Fortunately for Kim, he has been much more consistent in 2018. In 16 events, he has missed just three cuts, and he has four top-10s. Although, that is not to say that there have not been problems.
At the RBC Heritage, the week after a respectable T24 at The Masters, Kim got out front on Sunday, and down the stretch looked prime to win his third career PGA Tour event, a win which would have put him in elite company with Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, and Jordan Spieth as the only players to win three times before the age of 23.
Kim’s stellar iron play kept giving him birdie chances down the stretch, but he missed putts of less than 7 feet on EACH of the last four holes, which dropped him into a playoff with eventual winner Satoshi Kodaira, who had started the day six strokes back.
Terrible putting has plagued Kim this season, well illustrated by the fact that he currently ranks 200th on Tour in strokes gained: putting. He is contending more consistently than he has in past years, but until he gets his putting to the point where it is even just sort of passable, his ceiling will be limited.
2. THE GROUP
One of the biggest shames of the contemporary PGA Tour is that fans have never been treated to a major Sunday with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson both in contention and paired together. Both players are now well into their 40s – Tiger is 42 and Phil is 47 – and with each passing major, it becomes less and less likely that it will ever happen.
It isn’t the same, but the officials for THE PLAYERS made the very popular decision of pairing the two legends together for the first two rounds of this week’s event. Now, instead of Tiger having the largest following and Phil having the second-largest, the two will consolidate a mammoth crowd. Both Tiger and Phil have one PLAYERS Championship on their resume, and both have shown good reason to believe that their second could come this week.
In Tiger’s two most recent starts, he has finish of T55 at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, and a T32 at The Masters, an event he has won four times prior. Prior to the start of the 2018 season, if the average person was told that Tiger would have those two results coming into THE PLAYERS, they would likely be content with it: he stayed healthy and he made the cut.
However, in the now, those starts are at least mildly disappointing; that is, with the context of his three starts before The Masters: a 12th place finish at the Honda Classic, followed by a T2 at the Valspar Championship and a T5 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Expectations were largely tempered for Tiger in January, but that better-than-expected three-start stretch gave fans reason to believe that the 79-time PGA Tournament winner was on the cusp of regaining his elite form.
None of that is to say that Tiger’s recent play has necessarily been bad, but perhaps expectations became somewhat unreasonable going into The Masters, where he was among the betting favorites.
Still, there is a lot of good to say about Tiger’s 2018 game. His iron play and short game have been phenomenal, even for him, and his famously worrisome back has withstood the punishment of many hits from the rough, created by a wayward tee game.
Tiger’s 2013 victory at TPC Sawgrass was his most recent high-caliber victory, which should give him some good feelings coming into the week. He is healthy, and he is ready to go.
As for Phil, aside from a 2007 victory where he bested regular PLAYERS contender Sergio Garcia by two strokes, he has struggled badly in this event, but a 2018 rebirth in his game has him believing that he can become just the seventh player to win at TPC Sawgrass multiple times.
Currently ranked third in the FedExCup standings, Mickelson exploded in February with four consecutive top-6 finishes, highlighted by a win at the WGC-Mexico Championship where he took down a red-hot Justin Thomas in a playoff.
Phil’s solid play has mostly continued since that hot streak. A T17 at the WGC-Match Play and a T24 at the Houston Open were copacetic results, and even in his T36 at The Masters, Phil was excellent in three of four rounds. Unfortunately for him, that one bad round was a very bad round: a Friday 79 that torpedoed his chances at major championship win No. 6.
In his one start since Augusta, at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, he rode a stellar 64-69 weekend into a T5 finish. Similar to Tiger, Phil has been erratic off the tees, but his short game has been on point, and he is bringing enormous confidence into the week.
THE PLAYERS does not send out twosomes on Thursday and Friday, meaning Tiger and Phil have one other partner, that being 2015 event champion Rickie Fowler. A flashy dresser and a social media addict, Rickie is more than comfortable with the spotlight, with a great deal of the attention he gets being self-inflicted.
The 29-year-old Fowler has been a mix of good and bad in 2018. He recently took runner-up honors at The Masters, has two other finishes inside the top 4, and won the unofficial Hero World Challenge back in December, but he has struggled badly trying to close tournaments, and he did not have his first sub-70 Sunday of the season until he played Augusta last month. His one start since The Masters was more of the same, as Rickie played well over the first three days, only to see a Sunday 73 drop him from 11th to a T21. He stands a good chance this week despite the pressure of the grouping, but he will need to stay out of his own way if he gets into contention after 54 holes.
3. FOUR COMING OFF A WIN
In one heck of a statistical anomaly, the field for THE PLAYERS boasts FOUR players who stood in the champion’s circle after their most recent PGA Tour event:
Satoshi Kodaira: Inarguably the biggest surprise winner of the 2018 season, the 28-year-old Japan native Kodaira won last month’s RBC Heritage despite having only made a handful of starts in his PGA Tour career. Even more impressively was how Kodaira won. An opening-round 2-over 73 had him nine strokes back of first round leader Rory Sabbatini, but Kodaira bounced back with a tournament low 8-under 63 in round two. Coming into Sunday, he was still six strokes out of the lead, but a 5-under 66 forced a playoff with Si Woo Kim that he would win on the third extra hole. With the victory, Kodaira happily took up PGA membership, having all his prior success in Asia.
Billy Horschel: A four-time Tour winner coming into the season, Horschel started the 2018 calendar year with a T11 at the 34-man Sentry Tournament of Champions, but then went into an awful slump. Over his next eight starts, he missed five cuts, and when he did little when he made the weekend, posting a T43 and two T54s in his other three starts. Then, after The Masters, a change with his putter catalyzed a three-start tear, with Horschel finishing T5 at the RBC Heritage, T11 at the Valero Texas Open, and then a two-man team victory at the Zurich Classic, where he made one clutch putt after another. Horschel has played TPC Sawgrass well before, and the Florida native is currently brimming with confidence.
Scott Piercy: The other half of the Horschel victory tandem at the Zurich Classic, Piercy could not match Horschel’s hot putter, but constantly put them in a position to make those putts easier. Currently ranking second on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, Piercy’s stellar iron game gives him a great chance at a course in TPC Sawgrass that greatly rewards it. The 39-year-old has placed inside the top 25 in 8 of 14 starts this season.
Jason Day: A champion by four strokes at THE PLAYERS in 2016, Day knows how to win at TPC Sawgrass, and he will now be coming in hot after winning last week’s Wells Fargo Championship. Coming into 2018, that 2016 PLAYERS rout was Day’s last win, but after he tasted victory at Torrey Pines in January at the Farmers Insurance Open, Day now has two wins on the season. His approach game has not been spectacular, but he has been so phenomenal in the short game that it has not mattered. Day currently leads the Tour in strokes gained: putting, is fourth in strokes gained: around-the-green, and is also first in strokes gained: total and sand save percentage. Now second in the FedExCup standings despite making only nine starts, Day is considered among the favorites to win again this week. Going back-to-back is difficult for most golfers, but Day pulled off the feat in 2015 and 2016.
4. SERGIO’S SLIDE
Sergio Garcia boasts the title of highest-earning golfer in PLAYERS history. He won the 2008 edition in a thrilling playoff over Paul Goydos and also has two runner-ups and a third among a handful of top 10 finishes at TPC Sawgrass. It is a week the 38-year-old Spaniard circles on his calendar every year, and he rarely fails to see his name prominently on the leaderboard.
However, despite all his PLAYERS successes, Sergio finds himself uncharacteristically looking for his game, in the midst of a recent slide. Garcia was playing tremendously coming into his championship defense at this year’s Masters, with three straight top-10s on the PGA Tour, and even better results internationally.
The Masters, though, was a complete disaster. An opening round 81 was lowlighted by an unfathomable 13 on the par-5 15th hole, and paired with a second round 78, Sergio missed the cut by nine strokes, finishing better than only two players in the field.
Sergio went on to also miss the cut at his next two events: the Valero Texas Open, which was held at a course that he was a consultant in the design, and the Zurich Classic. Missing cuts is not something Sergio does often, but now it has happened in three straight tournaments for the first time since 2003.
Given his history at THE PLAYERS, it seems unlikely that Sergio will find himself on the wrong side of his fourth straight cut, but it is an unfamiliar position for the World No. 13, and getting off to a good start at TPC Sawgrass could be critical.
5. MASTERS CHAMPION HEAT CHECK
Patrick Reed might not have the greatest history at THE PLAYERS, but what cannot be argued is that he is currently playing the best golf of his career. After an inconsistent start to the 2018 season, something turned on for Reed during a runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship, and the 27-year-old is now coming into TPC Sawgrass off SIX consecutive top-10 finishes.
Any talk about the state of Reed’s game would be incomplete without mentioning his greatest achievement in 2018: a green jacket. The unpopular Texas native Reed was nearly flawless in his first three rounds at Augusta, and then hoisted the trophy after showcasing a strong Sunday defense of his 54-hole lead, holding off final round surges from Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth. In that week, Reed proved himself to be more than a team-play wonder.
Taking three weeks off after his Masters triumph, Reed has kept his foot on the pedal, with a T7 paired up with Patrick Cantlay at the Zurich Classic, and then an eighth place finish at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship. He sometimes gets himself in trouble with his driver, but his work on and around the greens has been otherworldly, which should make him a chief threat for a 7th consecutive top 10, or maybe even more, at THE PLAYERS this week.