PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s Day 3 here at the Players Championship, and by now we’ve been able to accumulate some intel after walking the course and talking to players and tournament officials.
Here are 21 things to know on the eve of the 2021 Players – a random collection of notes, observations, riffs and ... yes ... a prediction on the tournament winner.
1. A reminder this is just the second time since 2006 that The Players will be held in March. Walking the course, it’s as lush as you can possibly imagine. Justin Thomas called the fairways “pristine” and said it’s the “most pure” he’s ever seen the place. Earlier this week, players couldn’t recall putting faster greens here, but they’ve been dialed down over the past few days of preparation and will be “right where we want them” for the start of the tournament, according to Tour official Stephen Cox.
2. A big early-week storyline (that later became a non-story) was the addition of internal out-of-bounds stakes left of the pond on 18. That became a concern once Bryson DeChambeau, after winning at Bay Hill, said he’d at least consider bombing it down the adjacent ninth hole to give himself a better angle into the 18th green. He probably wasn’t going that alternate route anyway – there’s only a sliver of fairway he’d be trying to land a 325-yard drive, and he’d risk playing his second shot from a steep side slope or thick rough. But it reinforced – yet again – that Bryson is very much in the minds of golf’s decision-makers. From side-saddle putting to compasses to pace of play to 48-inch drivers, Bryson is three steps ahead and everyone else is just trying to keep pace.
3. Too bad the 2021 Players isn’t doing a staggered start after 2020’s one-and-done start. Hideki Matsuyama had tied the tournament course record with a 63 and, the way he was playing, felt like it was going to be his tournament to lose. Harris English, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Si Woo Kim had 65s. They’re all starting at even par this year, of course.
4. Which means, technically, Rory McIlroy is still the reigning Players champion. He’s not currently in the best of places, mentally or physically. At Bay Hill, where he’s played better than anybody over the past few years, he struggled to a 76 in the final round and suggested afterward that he was perhaps looking to go in a “different direction.” That set off some alarms, but McIlroy clarified Tuesday that he’s not talking about a personnel change, per se. He was instead referring to some of the specific swing changes he’s trying to make. His frustration is understandable: He hasn’t won anywhere since October 2019. As he said when describing the differences in his confidence level at this point compared to last year: “Not as high, obviously.”
5. Early candidate for shot of the week:
Do it in the tournament, Bobby, and we’ll really be impressed.
6. For those with an eye on prop bets: The winning score the last six years has been between 10 under (2017) and 18 under (2018). Which is why we like somewhere around 15 under this year.
7. The predominant wind direction this week will be out of the east and northeast. That means it’ll be blowing from right to left (and potentially hurting) on Nos. 17 and 18. And those are dicey shots already! When the tournament was played in May, the wind was blowing from the other direction and, with the breeze at their back, most players hit wedge into the penultimate hole. Not so this year – a couple players mentioned hitting as much as 8-iron into a stiff crosswind in practice rounds. A draw wind (for a right-hander) makes that smallish green play even smaller – especially when they’re coming in with more club. Since 2003, there’s been an average of 47 water balls a year.
8. Is DJ’s mini-slump over? And by “slump,” we mean five un-DJ-like rounds. He shot over par during the final round at Riviera when he had a chance to win – the first time he’s done that in a year – and then was all out of sorts off the tee while struggling to a finish outside the top 50 in the WGC at Concession, his worst result since July. Johnson struggled mightily in his first eight attempts at TPC Sawgrass but has posted top-20s in each of his last three appearances. He said he smoked his driver in the practice round after tinkering with his ball position. Only four world No. 1s have won The Players, most recently Jason Day in 2016.
9. Caught up Wednesday with Scott Harrington, who at age 40 is making his first appearance at The Players. On a tour with so many young studs, Harrington was the oldest rookie when he finally broke onto the big tour for the 2019-20 season but he said the transition to the big leagues wasn’t hard, because he already had so many built-in friendships. After all, he’d played with a bunch of guys, first in college and then on the various developmental tours, watching them all go on to bigger and better things while he stayed behind. “I’m Van Wilder,” he joked. “I’m the super senior.”
10. Jordan Spieth will be fascinating to watch this week. He seems very much back, finishing inside the top 15 in each of his past four starts on the strength of elite iron play, and yet he’s had trouble at TPC Sawgrass even in the best of times. He was the 54-hole co-leader in 2014 but proceeded to miss four of his last five cuts here. His inconsistent driving will most certainly be put to the test – there’s hazards seemingly everywhere.
11. The only two top-50 players missing this week: Brooks Koepka and Matthew Wolff. Koepka was a surprise – he bowed out with a knee strain, and there were no details in the short release about when he suffered the injury. For what it’s worth, he didn’t appear to have any restrictions two weeks ago at Concession. Wolff withdrew from the WGC after an opening 83 and is taking time off to get fully healthy.
12. There was an odd sight here on Tuesday and Wednesday: Fans. Lots of ’em! It’s the first time in a calendar year that spectators have been allowed on-site during practice rounds, and this week marks their largest footprint since the restart. Tournament officials announced a few months ago that it’d allow 20% of its usual capacity. The exact number isn’t known, but a reasonable expectation is somewhere around 10,000 a day. Houston last fall had 2,000 a day, Phoenix had about 5,000 and last week at Bay Hill they welcomed about the same number, seemingly all of them watching DeChambeau and Spieth. How many fans do Tour pros need to make a difference physiologically (nerves, pressure, excitement, etc.)? Dustin Johnson said one is better than none. Billy Horschel mentioned at least a few thousand. Maverick McNealy calculated it differently: “Rather than saying to your caddie, ‘That was pretty good, wasn’t it?’, knowing that 1,000 people saw it, that’s a lot more fun.”
13. It’s been too long – it’s time for Justin Thomas to once again play like the No. 3 player in the world. These have been a difficult few months off the course for JT, some of which was self-inflicted, of course, after he muttered a homophobic slur under his breath while playing at Kapalua. In the aftermath he was sincere and contrite, but it’s clear that moment took a toll, as did losing his grandfather, Paul, on the eve of the final round in Phoenix. One of the most consistent players in golf, he has three top-15s this calendar year and two missed cuts. When asked about his mental state this week, JT said: “I’m doing OK. I have definitely been better.” Some sharper play (which begins with better driving) should reignite that famous fire.
14. It’s only natural to reflect on the events of a year ago, when The Players was canceled and it seemed like the world shut down. Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the day none of us will ever forget, which allows us a shameless plug for this story.
15. Here are the five players with the best cumulative score to par here since 2013: McIlroy and Adam Scott (44 under), Sergio Garcia (35 under), Jason Day (32 under) and Webb Simpson (29 under).
16. Looking for a sleeper this week? Andrew Putnam comes to mind. Back-to-back top-7s, including last week at Bay Hill. Will Zalatoris jumps off the page, too, even as a Players first-timer. Navigating courses he’s seeing for the first time, he has top-25s in five of his past six starts. He’s one of the best iron players on the planet, right up there with Collin Morikawa. We asked him Wednesday who would win a closest-to-the-pin contest between him and fellow 24-year-old sharpshooter Morikawa. Zalatoris smiled: “I’d like to have that competition.”
17. Speaking of Morikawa, TPC Sawgrass will represent an important test for his rebuilt putting stroke. At Concession, using the saw grip for only the second time, he ranked 10th in strokes gained: putting and, when paired with his sublime ball-striking, topped the best field of the year to date. It’s not the first time he’s gotten hot on the greens – he was the best putter at TPC Harding Park, too, en route to his PGA victory. But that was a mirage, a one-week hot streak, like so many of these guys are capable of producing. Was this one too? We’ll learn more this week.
18. Those who played Bay Hill’s torture chamber on Sunday were relieved to get here to The Players. Doug Ghim entered the final round at Arnie’s Place in a tie for seventh, four shots back. He knew it was going to be a difficult day – he had looked up at the leaderboard and noticed everybody else falling back, not surging ahead. He could handle Sunday stress. He could handle a windy day. He could handle baked greens. But all three? “Never seen that before,” he said. He shot 81 and dropped to T-36.
19. The weather this week is, in a word, perfect. Highs between 70 and 73 degrees. Winds between 5-15 mph. The highest percentage chance of rain during tournament rounds: 6%. As someone who must wear a mask for 15 hours a day while on-site, this is rather pleasing.
20. Perhaps it’s just a weird coincidence, but the past five winners (and 11 of the last 13) have been in the early-late wave to begin The Players. Some of the most intriguing guys in that group this year: Thomas, McIlroy, Simpson, Xander Schauffele, Viktor Hovland, Patrick Cantlay, Tyrrell Hatton, Tony Finau, Lee Westwood, Matt Fitzpatrick and Scottie Scheffler.
21. If you’ve made it this far, the least we can do is offer a prediction on the winner. You have office (or work-from-home?) pools. You play DFS. We get it. And so our pick to win is ... Xander Schauffele. The Tour leader in the all-around statistic has made 23 consecutive cuts and tied for second here in 2018. Took a week off after his worst finish in nearly a year, he’ll finally nab one of those big titles he’s coveted for so long.