It was exhilarating.
It was medicinal.
It was exactly what golf needed with so much of the start of this year mired in ugly squabbling over the new Rules of Golf.
The Players Championship was a freshening, invigorating breeze. Sunday was a showcase for the world’s best players, a riveting and action-packed finish on one of the game’s most exciting stages.
Tiger Woods did so much to make golf seem cool to the outside world, but his good work felt as if it was being undone this year.
Golf seemed so uncool with the esoteric nature of the rules arguments making the game appear so unappealingly stodgy.
So, here’s a big thanks to Jay Monahan, not only for stepping in to curb the unruly mob his players were morphing into with their unchecked disdain for the USGA, but also for his moving The Players Championship back to March.
The PGA Tour commissioner gets credit for back-to-back aces this month.
His fingerprints are all over this corrective turn.
And here’s a big thanks to Pete Dye for his wicked architectural genius, for creating one of the few designs that so cleverly combats the modern ball and equipment.
Dye didn’t invent risk-reward architecture, but he put his signature, devilish smirk on it in his masterpiece at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course.
The layout is 7,189 yards. That’s practically a pitch-and-putt these days, without his artful ability to seduce and beguile.
Sunday ultimately came down to Rory McIlroy and Jim Furyk, a study in contrast. McIlroy is the quintessential power player, ranking third on the PGA Tour this year in driving distance (304.2). Furyk is the throwback, the embodiment of the crafty navigator, ranking 212th in driving distance (266.3 yards).
This was a fair, demanding and immensely fun-filled test.
The Players may not be a major championship, but the USGA better up its game quick. Sunday’s finish felt more like a major than anything the U.S. Open has delivered in the last decade.
Forget the major moniker, if The Players keeps delivering days like Sunday in its return to March, it’s going to vault among the four best events in the game. It’s going to rank with the Masters, Ryder Cup and Open Championship as the game’s best competitions.
The Players Championship may already be the third most exciting event in the game, behind the Masters and Ryder Cup.
Dye’s design is a factor in that, rewarding great shot making while severely punishing mistakes.
McIlroy was the unquestionable star of the show, but Jon Rahm was his equal in the way you couldn’t take your eyes off either of them.
Rahm couldn’t beat McIlroy, but he somehow enhanced his billing as one of the game’s most interesting new stars.
The fiery 24-year-old Spaniard was mostly successful grappling with his combustible temperament, but his battle was a show unto itself.
With three bogeys over the first four holes, Rahm somehow still had a chance to win. He still had a chance even after rinsing his approach at the 11th with a dicey gamble trying to reach that par 5 in two. He was tied for the lead stepping to the 15th tee, before finally succumbing with a bogey there and another rinse job at the 17th island hole.
Rahm’s exchange with his caddie in a bunker off the 11th fairway crystallized the tension Dye creates, with Rahm engulfed in one of architect’s seductions. Rahm flunked a Dye exam there, overruling his caddie to go for the green in two with a bold draw around trouble, from a lie in a bunker.
No matter what Rahm insists, it was a bad play. He failed there, but we all won getting to see championship golf at its pressure-packed core.
Sunday’s finish did more to grow the game than anything this side of Tiger.
Anyone who thinks golf is slow, ponderous and boring should have tuned in.
NBC golf producer Tommy Roy’s head must have been on a swivel trying to capture all the action on the monitors in the network’s production truck. It’s a wonder he didn’t need treatment for whiplash when it was over.
For golf, this was a breathless pace.
There were so many big moments delivered by so many players, with 11 players within two shots of the lead on the back nine.
There were thrills and spills from Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood rinsing shots at the 11th, to Eddie Pepperell and Jhonattan Vegas rolling in bombs at the 17th, to Furyk’s clutch 7-iron to 3 feet at the last, to Rory's championship finish.
The championship’s defining moment was McIlroy’s long walk from the 16th green to the 17th tee, in that terrific amphitheater surrounding the famed island hole.
It was such a dramatic pause, allowing us to catch our breath as we watched McIlroy march into the moment like a matador entering the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid.
McIlroy finished like the champion he is.
With help from so many of the game’s best players – and one of the game’s best venues – he gave the game just what we needed this season.