“The 17th at TPC Sawgrass.” Sports fans need only hear those words, and many will be keeping at least one eye on TV screens this weekend, when the most famous hole on tour once again taunts the world’s best players with the Tour equivalent of a do-or-die shot in a match at TopGolf.
We called in this space last week’s event at Quail Hollow a “mini-major.” This week, with THE PLAYERS Championship, we advance to “near-major” status. A solid case can be made that a win at Sawgrass is the most coveted “regular” tour stop title, the vaunted “fifth major,” as some have called it.
Ready to defend, Si Woo Kim?
The world’s No. 40-ranked player was a surprise winner a year ago, becoming the youngest champ in event history at just 21 years of age. If he wants to repeat, all he needs to do is hold off the entire golf world.
Like the Red Carpet at the Oscars, everyone who is anyone in men’s golf can be found walking the grounds of TPC Sawgrass this week. Every player in the current top 50 of the FedEx Cup standings is entered (and dreaming of the 600 FedEx points that go to the winner). Every player in the current top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings will also be in attendance. The last time any event in the world could claim such a field was the 2016 U.S. Open.
Trying to predict what will happen is a fool’s errand. The only thing we can say with certainty is that balls will go into the water on 17 at very inopportune times for at least a few players. (A total of 69 missed the island green last year, the highest total since 2007.) Course designers Pete Dye and Alice Dye, both now nonagenarians, will surely be sporting wry smiles once again every time it happens.
Tournament: THE PLAYERS Championship
Dates: May 10-13, 2018
Where: Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Course: THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass
Distance: Par 72, 7,189 yards
Architect: Pete and Alice Dye
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,980,000
Defending Champion: Si Woo Kim
Marquee Players: Kim, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson
TV AND ONLINE
First teeing off in 1974, THE PLAYERS Championship might not have the longest history on Tour, but the history it does have is undeniably rich. The tournament is the brainchild of former PGA Commissioner Deane Beman, who earned a reputation for being unafraid to dream big.
It helped Beman’s vision that the inaugural event, held at Atlanta Country Club in Marietta, Ga., was won by Jack Nicklaus, the biggest name in golf. THE PLAYERS bounced around between several Southern locales in the 70s, with Nicklaus also taking the 1976 and the 1978 tournaments. The tournament was drawing big names and high-level drama, but something was missing, something that would eventually turn THE PLAYERS into one of the best shows in professional sports.
Beman knew for THE PLAYERS to really take off, it would need a permanent location for fans to associate it with. He teamed up with legendary course designer Pete Dye and Dye’s wife, Alice, and in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. built the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, which would almost instantly become one of the most iconic locations in the game.
It was important to Beman that the course demand a complete arsenal of shots, a request that Dye smashed out of the park. The list of winners has been diverse, with the course not favoring any specific kind of golf. With TPC Sawgrass becoming the regular venue in 1982, winners have included such stars as Fred Couples, Sandy Lyle, Tom Kite, Greg Norman, Davis Love III, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Nicklaus is the only three-time winner of the event, although all three championships occurred in the pre-Sawgrass days. Couples, Love III, and Woods, in addition to Hal Sutton and Steve Elkington, comprise the list of two-time TPC Sawgrass champions.
1974-2018: THE PLAYERS Championship
2017: Si Woo Kim (-10)
2016: Jason Day (-15)
2015: Rickie Fowler (-12)
2014: Martin Kaymer (-13)
2013: Tiger Woods (-13)
2012: Matt Kuchar (-13)
2011: K.J. Choi (-13)
264 (-24) Greg Norman (1994)
3- Jack Nicklaus (1974, 1976, 1978)
2 – Fred Couples (1984, 1996)
2 – Steve Elkington (1991, 1997)
2 – Hal Sutton (1983, 2000)
2 – Davis Love III (1992, 2003)
2 – Tiger Woods (2001, 2013)
In the final round of the 2017 PLAYERS Championship, 21-year-old Si Woo Kim started the day two strokes behind, but captured the lead on the front nine and methodically cruised to a bogey-free 3-under 69, becoming the youngest winner in PLAYERS Championship history.
Kim finished the four days at 10-under, three shots better than runners-up Louis Oosthuizen and Ian Poulter, who both finished at 7-under-par.
Rafael Cabrera Bello and Kyle Stanley tied for the 4th spot at 6-under, and rounded out the top-5 at TPC Sawgrass.
FINAL TOP 5
1 Si Woo Kim -10
2 Ian Poulter -7
2 Louis Oosthuizen -7
4 Kyle Stanley -6
4 Rafa Cabrera Bello -6
Pick a name — any name. They are all here. Which players will be bringing their A-games along with their entourages is the million-dollar question. (Actually, $11 million, a record purse for the event, with the winner pocketing just short of $2 million.)
As mentioned, Si Woo Kim is facing a very tall order if he wants to be in the conversation as a repeat winner — something that has never happened before in the previous 44 incarnations of THE PLAYERS. He may be only No. 40 in the world at the moment, but at least his recent form hasn’t been without bright spots — a playoff loss at the RBC in Hilton Head, a top 25 (T24) at The Masters, a tie for ninth at the WGC Match Play.
Many people’s pick for Man of the Moment will be Jason Day. It’s difficult to argue against that, having seen the manner in which he finished strong to claim last week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, winning for the second time already this season, and boosting himself six spots to No. 7 in the world. Day’s struggles away from golf last year are well-documented, but you need go back to only 2016 to find him with THE PLAYERS trophy in his hands, capping a streak of seven wins in 17 starts and giving the appearance that he had a dominant hold on the world’s No. 1 ranking. No one has a hotter putter right now, but winning at TPC Sawgrass requires execution in all phases of the game.
Another storyline will be whether there’s any movement in the current battle to be No. 1, with current world No. 2 Justin Thomas — the leader in the FedEx Cup standings this year — close behind the world’s No. 1 player since last year, Dustin Johnson.
Thomas will be playing in his fourth PLAYERS and has yet to miss a cut, finishing as high as tied for third in 2016. In his first try at TPC Sawgrass the previous year, he served notice of his potential when he set a tournament record with 10 birdies in his third round (a mark that has since been tied by Colt Knost.)
TPC Sawgrass hasn’t been nearly so productive for DJ, who has yet to post a top 10 finish in nine previous tries.
It appears Tour officials take the “Stadium Course” concept of TPC Sawgrass quite seriously, as they will fully test its limits this week by perhaps trying to create a world-record gallery for a single group on the first two days. They’ve announced a grouping of arguably the three most popular players on tour, with world No. 6 and 2015 PLAYERS champion Rickie Fowler playing alongside of No. 19 Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. It marks the first pairing of Mickelson and Woods in the same group together in almost four years. They may need to replace the course marshals with rock concert security veterans to control the galleries for this group.
Woods has twice before won THE PLAYERS title in his career, and is second overall in career earnings in this event. Who does he trail? Current world No. 13 Sergio Garcia, who has made the cut 14 straight years at this event, culminating in a PLAYERS title of his own in 2008. He has earned more than $5.3 million in this single event.
Other players who come in with some heat who deserve mention are led by Patrick Reed and Henrik Stenson. Reed, the world No. 10, obviously won The Masters last month, but has held form since, including a solid eighth-place showing last week at the Wells Fargo. Stenson has long enjoyed TPC Sawgrass, as he ranks No. 3 in all-time earnings in this event, plus he’s coming in off three straight top-six finishes in his last three starts.
Veteran names who may not be obvious choices, but do have intriguing resumes include Ian Poulter and Zach Johnson. Poulter has snapped out of a long funk with a victory six weeks ago at the Houston Open and a tie for seventh four weeks ago at the RBC Heritage. Most notably, he finished in a tie for second at last year’s PLAYERS, the second time in his career he has placed that high in this tournament.
Johnson had a fifth-place showing at the Valero Texas Open three weeks ago, and along with partner Jonathan Byrd, placed 15th at the Zurich Classic two weeks ago. Put that together with a track record in this event of 12 cuts made in 13 tries, including six top 20 finishes, and he, too, could be one to keep an eye on this week.
Credits: PGA Tour Media, Getty Images