PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship is typically not a rookie’s paradise. It has traditionally rewarded experience and course knowledge, with veterans often rising to the top of the leaderboard.
Not this year.
There are 18 first-time participants this week, several of whom have played their way into contention with one round to go. The group is headlined by Kevin Kisner, who will join leader Chris Kirk in Sunday’s final pairing.
Kisner was on the wrong side of the cut line midway through his second round before rallying with a back-nine 31. He added a 67 in Round 3 and believes that earning a spot in the elite field at TPC Sawgrass proves he has what it takes to succeed.
“Everybody talks about pressure and nerves and all that, but we’ve been through it all,” Kisner said. “If we’ve gotten here, we’ve done Tour school, we’ve won tournaments. Just because it’s a bigger stage doesn’t mean we’re going to suck all of a sudden.”
Kisner is still looking for his first victory after losing a playoff last month at the RBC Heritage, while fellow Players rookie Ben Martin recorded his breakthrough win earlier this season in Las Vegas. Martin will begin the final round alongside Kisner at 9 under, one behind Kirk. Martin is making his first start in this event, but the 27-year-old has previous Stadium Course experience from his days at Clemson.
“I’ve played the course eight or 10 times before, so I had a feel for it and kind of knew the layout a little bit coming in,” Martin said. “So I really don’t feel like it’s my first time playing.”
Kisner and Martin are the top rookies on the 54-hole leaderboard but not the only ones in contention. Justin Thomas set a tournament record with 10 birdies en route to a 65 that moved him to 8 under, and Ryo Ishikawa – who despite 19 starts in majors and 10 starts in WGC events has never teed it up here – is tied for 11th at 7 under.
“The first impression was everything is huge,” Ishikawa said. “The driving range is huge and the chipping green (is) bigger than I thought, but 17th green was smaller than I thought.”
The last first-timer to win this event was Craig Perks in 2002, although Jordan Spieth nearly accomplished the feat a year ago. With several rookies in the mix on a jam-packed leaderboard, that drought could end Sunday.