PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Since The Players Championship broke camp in 2007 and bolted for the drier climes of May, the tournament has, by almost all accounts, identified the week’s best player, if not the biggest names on the marquee.
“That's what it looks like, yeah, over the years,” Tiger Woods said when asked if TPC Sawgrass identifies the best player. “You just can't fake it on this golf course. That's the biggest thing that we've learned over the years. You have to just play well, period.”
Yet as the stars aligned on the eve of this year’s championship, the opportunity for something special has emerged. Last week at Quail Hollow, Rickie Fowler delivered on all that potential, beating Rory McIlroy – and D.A. Points – in a head-to-head bout many had long predicted.
Phil Mickelson, a winner earlier this year at Pebble Beach, came within an unfortunate ricochet of another green jacket at last month’s Masters. Meanwhile, Hunter Mahan, the PGA Tour’s only two-time winner this season, is making a pitch for top-American honors and Lee Westwood, who was 10 under par on the weekend at Quail Hollow, may be hitting the ball better than anyone else in golf.
Whether the assembled stars break the string of relatively mundane Players’ finales, however, is still something of a long shot considering the event’s recent history.
Simply put, for an event that began with Jack Nicklaus winning three out of the first five editions The Players has fallen into a bit of rut, particularly since the event’s move to May.
Mickelson won the first May Players, followed by Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Tim Clark and K.J. Choi. If you’re trying to find a degree or two of separation between that fivesome you may be looking for a while. They are as different and diverse as Pete Dye’s Stadium.
But if that eclectic group included the right champions, with the exception of Mickelson and perhaps Garcia, they weren’t exactly the type of winners commensurate with what we expect from the “fifth major.”
Clark hadn’t won before his Players breakthrough in 2010 and Stenson hasn’t come close to winning since, while Choi – who beat David Toms in a playoff – may have the proper pedigree but doesn’t exactly have the star potential to transcend the golf wires.
On Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass Woods offered a familiar lament against the Stadium Course, suggesting that the layout’s penultimate hole may be playing out of order: “Seventeen is a great hole, but not the 17th. It’s a perfect eighth hole or something like that.”
But if the island-green 17th is mislabeled, that still doesn’t explain why The Players has had good champions, but precious few great finishes. Missing from the proceedings has been a true, TPC title bout with the game’s biggest names trading blows and birdies down the stretch.
Playoffs in 2011 and 2008 were lively, but there have still been surprisingly few instant classics, particularly when compared with TPC’s stablemates on the Tour calendar.
Some tournaments enjoy an embarrassment of riches in this category. Bay Hill, thanks largely to Woods, is something of a category leader, as is Quail Hollow – which has given us Rory vs. the world in 2010, Lucas Glover vs. Jonathan Byrd in 2011, and Rickie vs. Rory this year.
Sawgrass has been good, but not great – which, not so ironically, would also be Woods’ line at the swamp-turned-stadium course.
Since his victory in 2001 Woods has one top-10 finish, three finishes outside the top 20 and consecutive WDs at TPC Sawgrass. Following pedestrian starts at the Masters – where he tied for 40th, his worse showing at Augusta National as a professional – and Quail Hollow, where he missed the cut for just the eighth time as a pro, he sounded like a guy who just wanted to remain upright for four days.
“It's either I've done really well or I haven't,” said Woods, who was headed home early nursing various injuries the last two years at The Players. “Either I've been right there in contention with a chance or I haven't. I think that's the nature of this golf course, though.”
But then Woods is hardly the only star with a love/hate relationship with TPC Sawgrass. With a shortened backswing courtesy of Butch Harmon Mickelson won the event in 2007, but in 18 Players’ starts he has just three top-10s.
“It’s pretty straightforward. I mean, the course hasn't changed over the years,” Mickelson said. “Tee shots, getting it in the right spot, you want to hit to certain spots. So it's not just stand up and hit it as far as you can, that's why there’s a lot of 3-woods and 5-woods off the tee. . . . Even though I have won, my record is not what I would have liked.”
It’s a strategic reality that may at least partially explain The Players’ often quiet finishes. Because of the angles on many fairways the Stadium Course is, however inadvertently, an answer to the bomb-and-gouge mentality that dominates the game at the highest level.
TPC Sawgrass ranked 13th on Tour last year in driving distance and one needs to look no further than Clark in 2010 and last year’s runner-up Toms to see what plays at The Players. The Stadium is the rarest of Tour courses where precision trumps power.
Even world No. 1 McIlory, who skipped the 2011 Players in what he calls a momentary lapse in reason, acknowledged the Stadium’s quirky nature, replacing his 5-wood with a 2-iron this week.
“Hitting 3-woods on some of these holes, it still goes a little too far even though you're hitting across fairways,” said McIlroy, who hasn’t made a cut in two Players starts. “Sacrificing some distance for me, it makes the targets a little bigger, and I don't mind going into a green with a 7-iron instead of a 9-iron. If you're hitting your second shots from the fairway here, it makes it a lot easier.”
The Players move to May from its traditional date in March has added to this less-is-more mentality. Drier conditions, combined with dramatic improvements in drainage and a state-of-the-art SubAir system, have created more “run out” on virtually all shots and effectively narrowed fairways and shrunk greens.
The Tour didn’t set out to mitigate the power advantage held by many of the game’s stars, but as unintended consequences go it is not entirely regrettable.
TPC Sawgrass hasn’t exactly produced the type of leaderboards befitting the “fifth major” since the jump to May, but given the recent form of McIlroy, Mickelson and Fowler’s breakthrough at Quail Hollow the stars may finally be aligned to make that jump from good to great.