PONTE VEDRA, Fla. – Year after year, it’s a common refrain here at The Players Championship: “Anybody can win!”
This tournament is the ultimate democracy. It’s been claimed by elite talents and one-hit wonders, big bombers and short knockers, old guys and young guys, ball-strikers and putting whizzes.
It should come as no surprise that entering this weekend the four players atop the leaderboard are of varying talent levels, accomplishments and on-course specialties.
In fact, at this most democratic of events, in this election year, the quartet represents specific candidates each hoping to be inaugurated as the next commander-in-chief of The Players.
The Major Candidate
Of all the major champions in this 144-man field – from Rory McIlroy to Phil Mickelson to Tiger Woods to Ernie Els – the only one on the first page of the leaderboard after two rounds is Zach Johnson, who claimed the Masters five years ago.
There’s a connection, too. With cold, windy weather that week of his victory, Johnson triumphed on a fast, firm Augusta National course that played to his skill set. Not that TPC Sawgrass shares many of the same attributes as that famed venue, but this course is likewise playing fast and firm – just the way Johnson likes it.
“I never really gave the golf course much; in other words, I kept it where you need to keep it,” Johnson said after a second-round 66 that left him in a share of the lead. “My misses were proper. I was aggressive when I could be aggressive. And I caught a couple nice saves in there, too. But when you shoot that kind of score around this golf course any day in the year, or any week, you're putting well. Clearly that's what I've been doing the best.”
As for where this tournament ranks against winning a major championship, the only major champion on the leaderboard has some very adamant opinions.
“I'll tell you this: I think this tournament is huge,” he contended. “I know who's won here the last so many odd years. Maybe not in a row. But my point is if you ask me who won a random tournament on Tour the last 10 years, I don't think I can tell you, but I can tell you who's won here, and it's because it should be a major almost.”
The Consistent Candidate
To quote the most famous announcer call in Players Championship history, Matt Kuchar is “better than most.”
With four top-10s in nine starts this year – and no missed cuts – Kuchar has continued a trend that first started at the beginning of 2010. Since that season, he has competed in 59 official PGA Tour events and finished in the top-25 on 46 occasions.
Yes, he is undoubtedly better than most. But Kuchar is rarely better than all.
Despite those eye-popping consistency numbers over the past three seasons, he has won just a single event during that time – and still owns only three career victories all told.
That could change this week, as back-to-back rounds of 68 have him tied for the lead.
“I think it’s a matter of just keeping yourself in position,” he said, “having the opportunities and, before long, you find yourself in that winner’s circle.”
The Underdog Candidate
Let’s play a little word association. As soon as you read the name in the next paragraph, close your eyes and think of the first thing that comes to mind.
Just a wild guess, but did your thought process quickly meander to his proclivity for slow play?
Na often bears the brunt of criticism as the poster child for the campaign to end slow play, but often lost in that crusade is the fact that the guy plays some truly inspired golf … albeit very slowly.
On Friday, Na posted a 3-under 69 to grab a share of the lead with Johnson and Kuchar. After claiming his first career win in Las Vegas last year, he already has four top-10s in 13 starts this season.
“That win last year did a lot for me confidence-wise and being a lot more relaxed out there when I’m in contention,” he said. “I’m playing very well, rolling it great. I think the key for me is going to be the driver, putting it in the fairway.”
The Rookie Candidate
He doesn’t have the impressive array of shots of Rory McIlroy or the flashy style of Rickie Fowler, but Harris English has already proven this season that he’s yet another young 20-something to be reckoned with.
In his first PGA Tour season, the University of Georgia alum has made 10 cuts in 13 starts and already has five top-25 finishes.
Perhaps most impressive is that he doesn’t seem fazed to be playing well in a tournament that includes nearly every one of the game’s biggest names. A second-round 67 has him just one stroke out of the lead going into the weekend – and as we’ve seen in democracies, success isn’t always incumbent on experience.
“I understand it comes and goes so quickly, and you've just got to be patient,” he explained. “The past couple weeks I haven't played my best golf, but I've played patient and worked on some things and I kind of kept a level head. It's come together thus far this week.”
Four distinct candidates on one of the game’s most democratic venues. One of ‘em just may see his poll numbers equate to victory come Sunday evening.