THE PLAYERS Primer: Storylines, History, TV, Field

Unanimously accepted as “the fifth major,” THE PLAYERS Championship might not technically classify as a major, but that could not be deduced from the feel of the week, nor could it from more tangible aspects like the prodigiously strong field, purse ($10.5 million), and FedEx Cup points (600).

 
The crown jewel of May golf, THE PLAYERS is the PGA Tour’s flagship event, and is set to tee off this week for the 44th time, with the past 35 editions being held at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, one of the most iconic locations in the game.

This year’s PLAYERS features a renovated TPC Sawgrass, which now boasts some new hazards, slick Bermuda grass greens, and a 12th hole with a contemporary aura.

Now a drivable par 4, eagle is most definitely in play on #12. The reward is great, but so is the risk, and missing the green left or right could lead to big numbers. It is certain to generate an increase in Sunday back nine drama.

 
Thanks to THE PLAYERS, Mother’s Day (this Sunday) now has something for everyone. A cleverly hidden smart phone tuned to the tournament will make that Sunday brunch at The Cheesecake Factory infinitely more tolerable.

Defending Champion Jason Day leads an elite 146-man field into Ponte Vedra Beach, for the most anticipated PLAYERS in years. A tournament that is never short on excitement, the 2017 version is sure to be a worthwhile watch.


History

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 a capacious dreamer.

 
It helped Beman’s vision that the inaugural event, held at Atlanta Country Club in Marietta, Georgia 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 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, 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, something 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.

 
This year’s PLAYERS Championship features some significant renovations. All the greens were redone, rough was altered, the water hazard between holes 6 and 7 was expanded, and perhaps most notably, the 12th hole was transformed into a paragon of risk/reward. That 12th hole is now a driveable par-4,, which is expected to lead to more birdies and eagles, while at the same time producing more pain and bogeys. A water hazard was added left of the green, so missing left will engender disaster, but missing on the right will only be marginally better, as the green slopes toward the water hazard, which combined with a mound and pot bunkers, will make second shots from the right terrifically difficult.


Course/Tournament Info

Name: TPC Sawgrass, Stadium Course
Where: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Distance: 7189 yards
Par: 72
Architect: Pete Dye
Purse: $10,500,000
Winning Share: $1,890,000
FedEx Cup Points: 600


Defending Champion

The defending champion of THE PLAYERS Championship is Jason Day. Going wire-to-wire, Day’s play in the first two rounds was immaculate, as he started 63-66 to take a four-stroke lead into the weekend.

 
Day was more pedestrian in the final two rounds as conditions deteriorated, but even with a weekend 73-71, his lead was barely threatened, and at 15-under he won by four strokes over Kevin Chappell. Ranked #1 in the World at the time, it was Day’s 10th career (and most recent) victory.

Other Recent Champions

2015: Rickie Fowler
2014: Martin Kaymer
2013: Tiger Woods
2012: Matt Kuchar
2011: K.J. Choi


Tournament Records

Lowest Final Score: 264 (-24): Greg Norman in his four-stroke 1994 victory
Low Round: 63 (Fred Couples, Greg Norman, Roberto Castro, Martin Kaymer, Jason Day, Colt Knost)

Television

Round 1: 1-7:00 PM – Golf Channel
Round 2: 1-7:00 PM – Golf Channel
Round 3: 2-7:00 PM – NBC
Round 4: 2-7:00 PM – NBC

Online

Website: www.theplayerschampionship.com
Facebook: Facebook.com/THEPLAYERS
Twitter: @THEPLAYERSChamp
Instagram: @ThePlayersChamp


Storylines: 1.Sergio’s Outlook

Most projections in any specific golf tournament are made mainly off two concepts:
1. A player’s past performance in the respective tournament.
2. Quality of recent play.

 
There are always other considerations, such as fit for the course, personal challenges, etc., but in a highly cerebral sport like golf, momentum is king, largely because it leads to confidence. Based solely on the two listed factors, Sergio Garcia should be considered the favorite.

Sergio’s history at TPC Sawgrass is the personal best of any course he plays regularly on the PGA Tour. He won the 2008 title in a thrilling playoff against a highly-inspired Paul Goydos, despite Goydos’ overwhelming fan support. He was the runner-up in 2007, and then again in 2015. A solo-third in 2014 and a T4 in 2002 also stand out among an impressive list of high finishes for Sergio in this event. This is clearly a place where he feels a tremendous sense of comfort.

 
As for his recent play, it has been exceptional. For many years, Sergio flashed undeniably elite talent, but had one of the biggest “buts” on Tour. He could probably feed an entire nation if he was given a dollar every time someone said, “He’s great, but he has never won a major championship. For nearly two decades, Sergio carried the cumbersome weight of majorless-ness on his shoulders. Sadly, it basically defined his career.

All of that changed, however, on April 9th of this year, when the 37-year-old Spaniard finally ascended to the rank of “major champion” when he came up victorious in a gripping playoff against Justin Rose at The Masters. The green of his new jacket suits him much better than the green he long had in his eyes.

 
TPC Sawgrass is lauded as a course that requires a full arsenal of shots. This might be why Sergio has shown a penchant for this course, as he is one of the more well-rounded players in the world, at least in regards to driving and iron play.

Sergio has again been a tee-to-green wizard this season, but still has not shaken his longt-time achillies heel: his notoriously poor putting game. Currently, he ranks 190th on Tour in strokes gained: putting and 180th in putts per round.

 
The greens at TPC Sawgrass have been completely redone this year, with is something that could be a positive or a negative for Sergio, depending on the light it is viewed in.

THE PLAYERS Championship will be Sergio’s debut as a major winner. With that immense pressure no longer suffocating him, it would not be surprising to see him transform back into some quasi-version of the young, vibrant prodigy who took the Tour by storm in 1999.


Storylines: 2. The Unstoppable Dustin Johnson?

Unlike Sergio, Dustin Johnson’s history at THE PLAYERS has been astoundingly unimpressive, so he does not receive a checkmark in the quality experience column for this tournament. However, in regards to quality of recent play, nobody in the world is in DJ’s ballpark.

 
After a banner 2016 season, which most notably included his first career major championship victory, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year has been even more special in 2017. When he won the Genesis Open back in February, Johnson captured the world #1 ranking for the first time. Since then, he has been nothing shot of amazing, winning his next two events, the WGC-Mexico Championship and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, two events that boast elite fields. He has viciously held onto that #1 ranking in a way we have not seen since prime Tiger.

 
Having won three consecutive starts going into The Masters, DJ was the overwhelming favorite to corral the green jacket. Unfortunately, an off-course injury on Masters eve led to an unfortunate withdraw. After an extended layoff, Johnson played in last week’s Wells Fargo Championship. He showed some rust with a second round 75, his worst round of the season, but was unbelievable on the weekend, shooting back-to-back 5-under 67s (tied for the low round in the field both days) to ascend from the cut line all the way into a tie for second place. If not for a miracle putt on the 72nd hole by Brian Harman, DJ could easily be going into THE PLAYERS on four-tournament winning streak.

 
If DJ is going to snag his fourth win of the season, he will need to vanquish the demons from the TPC Sawgrass past. Over the last nine seasons (his rookie year on Tour was 2008), he has finished the following at THE PLAYERS:

2016: T28
2015: T69
2014: T59
2013: W/D
2012: Did Not Play
2011: T57
2010: T34
2009: T79
2008: CUT

For someone of DJ’s caliber, those PLAYERS results are surprising. That being said, in his current form, he cannot be counted out anywhere. Playing hands-down the best golf of his career, it would be a shock if he does not at least achieve his first career PLAYERS top 10 finish this week.


Storylines: 3. What To Make of the Defending Champ?

unlike DJ, Jason Day has a positive history at THE PLAYERS, but, also unlike DJ, his recent form has been awful. He was dominant in winning last year at TPC Sawgrass, exploding to a record-setting 63-66 start, which allowed him to coast on the weekend. At 15-under-par, Day won by four strokes over Kevin Chappell. He was especially phenomenal on the back nine, finishing and impressive -12 for the week on holes 10 – 18. Nobody else reached -12 for both nines combined. He also finished T6 in the 2011 edition.

 
His status as defending champion gives him significant credibility at this tournament, but if he is going to be the first player to go back-to-back at TPC Sawgrass, he will need to look much, much better than he has so far in 2017.

Coming off a three-win season, Day sat out the last few months of 2016 with a back injury, but has mostly struggled to find his game since his return. This will be the third time this season that Day has gone into a tournament as the defending champion, something that did not do much for him at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he finished T23, or the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, where he withdrew with a personal issue (his mother was set to have surgery for her lung cancer) while getting crushed in his opening match.

 
Fortunately, the surgery went well, and the prognosis of Day’s mother has improved since then. Day has played in two events since then, finishing T23 at The Masters after a poor 74-76 start, and missing the cut with playing partner Rickie Fowler at the Zurich Classic two weeks ago.

Day was unquestionably the best putter on Tour in 2016, but that part of his game has completely imploded in 2017, as he currently ranks 147th on Tour in strokes gained: putting. His approach game has also seen a precipitous drop in 2017, as he has plummeted from 53rd to 109th in greens in regulation.

Despite his recent struggles, however, Day is No. 3 in the world for a reason, a ranking he has earned with incredible play over the past 24 months. If he is able to keep his head together on the course, the 29-year-old Australian will be among the most feared competitors this week.


Storylines: 4. International Flavor

Americans have won 21 of the 35 PLAYERS Championships that have been held at TPC Sawgrass, but as the years have progressed, the flag sailing high at the Stadium course has been a foreign variety with increasing frequency.

 
As the flagship event of the PGA Tour, it is no surprise that THE PLAYERS brings the best Americans to the golf paradise of Ponte Vedra Beach, but it draws an elite crowd of international players as well, a crowd comparable to the majors.

With this year’s batch of players who claim citizenship from outside the United States being as good as it ever has, here are a few to watch extra closely, in addition to Sergio Garcia and Jason Day:

Rory McIlroy

The world No. 2 has not yet been able to add TPC Sawgrass to the long list of courses he has conquered, but he has played well here recently, finishing in the top 12 of each of the past four editions.

 
Rory was up-and-down last year, shooting a second round 64, but then following it up with a third round 75, leading to a T12. The reigning FedEx Cup champion has looked as great as always this season, finishing in the top seven in four of the five events he has entered.

This will mark his first tournament since he got married just two weeks ago. Assuming he did not golf as much as usual during his opulent 10-day Caribbean honeymoon, it is possible that McIlroy could look a little out-of-practice, but more than likely, he will shine on the big stage the way he usually does.

Martin Kaymer

Kaymer went wire-to-wire in his 2014 victory, fueled by a course-record tying 63 in round 1. The 32-year-old German has not played especially well at TPC Sawgrass since, finishing T39 last year and T56 in 2015, but has mostly played well in 2017. He was T4 at the Honda Classic back in February, and somehow pulled out a T16 at The Masters despite opening with a 78.

 

Henrik Stenson

The world #7 is in the midst of a shocking slump, missing his last four PGA Tour cuts, twice as many as he missed during the entire 2016 season. That being said, Stenson was the 2009 Players Champion and added a T5 in 2013.

 
With a career season still fresh in everyone’s mind (winning last year’s Open Championship, taking silver at The Olympics, and coming in first in the final European Tour Race to Dubai Standings), nobody is quite sleeping on Stenson yet, but his recent downward trend is troubling. The Swede has shown a proclivity in the past for large ups and downs in his game.

Justin Rose

Ranked #8 in the world, Rose very nearly captured major championship #2 at The Masters, finishing runner-up after taking Sergio Garcia to a playoff.   The Olympic Gold Medalist from England has already finished inside the top four in four 2017 tournaments.

 
Rose was in early contention at last year’s Players after shooting a first-round 65, but then played his next two rounds at +8. A final round 66 allowed him to salvage a T19. He showed that he can play very well or very poorly here. He was also T4 in 2014.

Jon Rahm

The 22-year-old Spanish wunderkind is difficult to project this week, as he will be making his Players debut, but most of the tournaments he has played this year were also his debut, and that has not stopped him from putting together a phenomenal 2017 season.

 
In his past eight events, he has five top-five finishes, including a win at the Farmer’s Insurance Open at famously-difficult Torrey Pines, and a T2 at the WGC-Match Play, where he nearly pulled off an incredible comeback against Dustin Johnson in the Championship Match. Rahm finished solo-fourth at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, briefly holding a back nine Sunday lead.


Other Notables In the Field

Jordan Spieth

The final round 75 at The Masters was very disappointing, but the season as a whole has been a good one so far for Spieth. He has four finishes in the top four, including a win at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

 
His results at THE PLAYERS have been mixed: he finished T4 in 2014, which was his first attempt at TPC Sawgrass, but has missed the cut the last two years. The world #5 is hoping to add win #10 to his resume this week, an extremely impressive number for a 23-year-old.

Phil Mickelson

Another former Players champion in the field, Mickleson won the 2007 version by two strokes over Sergio Garcia. More recently, however, he has missed the cut each of the last four years. Has played well in events with strong fields this season, finishing in the top 10 in each of the two 2017 WGC events.

 
Mickelson plummeted out of contention at Eagle Point last week on Sunday’s front nine, but displayed grit and resiliency with birdies on four of his last seven holes to salvage a round of even-par. He was T18 for the tournament.

Rickie Fowler

Fowler won the 2015 Players Championship, pulling off an all-time great finish when he somehow played the final six holes in six-under, which forced an aggregate three-hole playoff with Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner, which he then won. He did not fare as well in his 2016 defense, missing the cut entirely.

 
Fowler has been tremendous this season, winning the Honda Classic in February, and adding an additional three top five finishes. He contended at The Masters before a nightmare round 4 76. He leads the Tour in scoring average.

Matt Kuchar

Yet another past champion in the field, Kuchar emerged from a crowded leaderboard to capture the 2012 title, arguably the greatest victory of his 17-year career. Last year, he closed with a 68 to finish T3.

 
Kuchar has been relatively quiet in 2017 by his standards with just two top-10s in 13 events, although he did explode into contention on Sunday at The Masters with a final-round 67 to challenge the lead and finish T4.

Brooks Koepka

With finishes of T9, T11, 2, and T5 in his last four events respectively, it is safe to say that Koepka has broken out of the surprising slump that plagued his first three months in 2017. In his last start, he finished T5 at the Zurich Classic, which is especially impressive since he was teamed up with someone (his brother, Chase) who was making his PGA Tour debut.

 
This will be just Koepka’s third start at THE PLAYERS, missing the cut in 2015 and finishing T35 last year. He got off to a great start with a first-round 66, but his chances went up in flames with a third-round 77.

Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer.



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