Missing Players

By Rex HoggardMay 5, 2011, 1:24 am

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – From the back of the room one could almost see PGA Tour chief of operations Andy Pazder lean into the answer. Almost, but then Pazder is too cool for that.

Besides, Pazder has heard Rory McIlroy answer all manner of Player Championship questions, but this one stood out. Maybe it’s because golf’s “fifth major” looms next week, or perhaps it’s because the golf gods are transforming what is often referred to as the strongest field in golf into, well, something south of that.

Whatever the reason, when the Northern Irish lad spoke of TPC Sawgrass all of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was listening.

“This year I'm playing here, taking next week (Players week) off, and then playing Spain, Wentworth, Memorial, week off, U.S. Open,” McIlroy said on Tuesday at Quail Hollow. “I mean, if I played The Players it would be my sixth week of seven, which is a lot of golf for me.”

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy is 0-for-2 in cuts made at The Players. (Getty Images)

That McIlroy regards TPC Sawgrass with all the affinity of a trip through a TSA line is also at play.

“I don't feel that comfortable on the golf course yet,” said McIlroy, who is 0-for-2 in cuts made at the Stadium Course, a statistic that either explains or exaggerates his decision to skip this year’s event depending on what side of the aisle one sits.

McIlroy’s miss, however justifiable, is hardly isolated. In order The Players could be void of the world’s top ranked, the game’s top draw and last year’s top dog.

Like McIlroy, current world No. 1 Lee Westwood is out. As 2010 members who let their cards lapse, the European two-ball are limited to 10 Tour starts this season and The Players, an 11th-hour move by the circuit to woo Westwood and McIlroy to TPC that failed.

The politics of a global game aside, McIlroy and Westwood based their decisions not to travel to north Florida next week based on what’s best for their games, a competitive litmus test that should be applied more often if truth be told.

But that reality won’t make next week’s tee sheet any stronger.

The tournament may also be missing Tiger Woods, who by all accounts is back home at Isleworth nursing an ailing knee and Achilles and hadn’t hit golf balls since Augusta National as of last Tuesday. Not that Woods needs much of a reason to pass on the 2-hour drive north to TPC Sawgrass.

Woods hasn’t won the Tour’s flagship event in a decade, has just one top-10 since that 2001 victory and withdrew last year with a bad neck. They don’t hold majors on TPC courses and Woods knows that.

This is the same man who played the 2008 U.S. Open against doctor’s orders but doesn’t seem to have the same machismo when it comes to next week’s Players. It wasn’t Jack Nicklaus’ three Players’ tilts hanging on the wall back home in California.

The last Players domino seemed to begin its tumble on Monday when defending champion Tim Clark withdrew from the Wells Fargo Championship.

Clark, slowed this season by an elbow injury, is hardly a marquee stopper, nor can the Ponte Vedra Beach powers control who ends up on the DL, but it doesn’t help a tournament already embattled by circumstance and serious injury.

The European rise in the world ranking and The Players’ field troubles are not mutually exclusive. Simply put, players from the Continent are conditioned to think of the Players as a regular Tour event with a slightly hipper rap. It’s a truth complicated by the expanding importance of the World Golf Championships.

Asked on Tuesday whether he would rather win The Players Championship or a WGC, world No. 2 Martin Kaymer didn’t hesitate: “The World Golf Championships, and preferably the one at Firestone because it's a fantastic golf course and a beautiful place. Yeah, obviously to play well at the others would be nice, but I think I would prefer the World Golf Championship event.”

Chubby Chandler, the president of International Sports Management which represents Westwood and McIlroy, once referred to The Players as the “10th major” for players from the Continent, and if Kaymer’s math is any indication, Chandler has it about right.

There will be a worthy champion crowned next Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, a sprawling crowd amassed around the famed 17th hole and a solid field with an estimated seven of the top 10 players in the world – by comparison this week’s Wells Fargo Championship features five of the top 10 – just not three or four of the most important names in golf. And maybe three out of four isn’t bad.

But the vacancies in the Sawgrass players’ lot will echo what many have figured for years, it will not be the media or the Tour or even the fans that will decide if The Players is ever anointed true “fifth major” status – it will be the players. Given the current climate, the frat brothers have not reached a consensus just yet.

Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggardGC

Getty Images

Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

Getty Images

Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.

Getty Images

Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:07 pm

Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.

The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.

It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.

"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.

Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.

"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."

Getty Images

Rahm (62) shoots career low round at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 10:33 pm

After a banner year in 2017, Jon Rahm found a way to add yet another accolade to his growing list of accomplishments during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Rahm got off to a fast start at La Quinta Country Club, playing his first seven holes in 6 under en route to a 10-under 62. The score marked his career low on the PGA Tour by two shots and gave him an early lead in an event that utilizes a three-course rotation.

La Quinta was the site of Adam Hadwin's 59 during last year's event, and Rahm knew full well that a quick start opened the door to a memorably low score.

"Any time you have that going for you, you get thoughts come in your head, 60, maybe 59," Rahm told reporters. "I knew that if I kept playing good I was going to have more birdie opportunities, and I tried not to get ahead of myself and I was able to do it."

Rahm birdied his first two holes before an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole sparked him to an outward 30. He added four more birdies on the inward half without dropping a shot.

The Spaniard is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and while many players opted for a two-week stint in Hawaii he instead came home for some practice after opening the new year with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That decision appears to have paid some early dividends as Rahm gets set to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Low scores were plentiful on all three courses during the opening round, and Rahm remained pleased with his effort even though he fell short of matching Hadwin's sub-60 score from a year ago.

"That's golf. You're not going to make every single putt, you're not going to hit every shot perfect," he said. "Overall, you've got to look at the bigger picture. I birdied the last hole, had a couple of great sand saves coming in, shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for."