There are a few big questions in the world of professional golf right now, but there is only one enormous question: How will Jordan Spieth bounce back after his Masters collapse?
We haven’t seen the ‘golden child’ since Augusta, when he made a mess of the 12th hole and improbably lost a tournament he seemed destined to win with ease. Danny Willett took advantage of the quadruple-bogey, won his first major, and laughed all the way back to England.
Spieth immediately took off to the Bahamas for a vacation with Rickie Fowler, Smylie Kaufman, and Justin Thomas, and beyond a few social media posts cataloging their drunken exploits, Spieth has flown completely under the radar.
The lasting memory, still, is his deer-in-the-headlights gaze in Butler Cabin as he put the Green Jacket on the shoulders of Willett.
Spieth has a history of making grand comebacks from painful moments. He lost his first junior tournament in heart-breaking fashion, he lost his first college tournament in Texas in heart-breaking fashion, and he lost his first Masters in heart-breaking fashion.
Each time, he roared back, learned from his mistakes, and crushed his opponents. He is an expert at erasing bad memories, and there’s a good argument to be made that there’s no more critical skill for a professional golfer to own.
Remember Rory McIlroy’s Augusta collapse in 2011? Maybe. But you definitely remember the U.S. Open at Congressional two months later, when he went to war and set a U.S. Open record with -16, defeating his closest challenger by eight strokes.
He conquered the pain, and he conquered it quickly. Players like Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, on the other hand, seem to be living in a constant state of haunted memory, the ghosts of their past following them like a shadow each time they get close to the lead in a Major championship.
Judging by Spieth’s history, you’d expect him to bounce back quickly. He already has two Majors, including a Green Jacket, so it’s not like his loss to Willett will cost him a spot at the champion’s dinner. He’s already there for life. And his even temperament is ideally suited to letting the past drift away.
Still, even though he’s proved to be adept at soldiering on in the past, he’s never faced a bigger heartbreak than coughing up the 2016 Masters. It will be his greatest test of psychological adversity yet, and how he responds could define the rest of his career. That’s why this week’s Players Championship will be so fascinating – it’s his first tournament back and no matter what he says, or what he’s done, this is when we’ll be able to see the real scars…or the lack thereof.
As for those other big, but not enormous questions, can Rickie Fowler repeat last year’s victory at Sawgrass, despite his troubles with closing tournaments in 2016?
Does Rory’s Sunday rush up the leaderboard in Charlotte last weekend mean he’s ready to compete at the highest level again, or is it just more evidence that while he’s great, he lacks the consistency and the focus to regain his 2014 form?
And what about the Aussies, Adam Scott and Jason Day, who started the year so brilliantly. Will they capture the huge event they seem to deserve?
Here are four picks for the Players Championship, including a couple of long-shots (below) you shouldn’t ignore.
There’s a golf adage that I’m inventing right now, and it goes like this: Beware the juggernaut who nearly wins the preceding event, and is rounding into top form. A bit wordy, maybe, but sound. Rose nearly rang the bell at the Wells Fargo, and other than a missed cut at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans he’s been near the top of the leaderboard in every event he’s played since February.
He’s too good not to win a tournament soon, and based on his near-misses, calling him ‘due one’ is an understatement. Nothing is certain in golf, but it would be a small shock to see Rose out of the top seven in Florida.
It seems odd to say that someone as brash and controversial as Patrick Reed has flown under the radar, but from a golf standpoint, that’s exactly what’s happened the last two seasons.
He finished 12th in the FedExCup standings last season, and he’s sixth so far this year, but it still feels like we never actually hear his name. That’s because he hasn’t won since January of 2015, and because he’s under-performed in Majors. Crazy as it sounds, he’s still looking for his first top 10 in the year’s biggest events.
Reed is young, but it’s fair at this point to wonder when he’ll break through. The Players Championship is an ideal place for that to happen – not quite a Major, but still pressure-packed and with one of the strongest fields of the year.
It’s no coincidence that this is where Rickie Fowler broke through last year, or that Adam Scott won here before he ever won at Augusta.
It’s a gateway drug to Major glory and Reed could be the next beneficiary.
Chappell is this year’s Kevin Kisner, the surprise PGA Tour stud who keeps putting up great results. Kisner nearly won the Players last year before Fowler’s stunning close. I expect Chappell, who was second to Jason Day earlier this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, to compete the same way.
Byeong Hun An
An has been on a hot streak all season and was only eliminated in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans on the first play-off hole. (Eventually won by Brian Stuard). But still he’s perennially ignored by the press which means you can pick up the world’s 24th-ranked golfer at tasty odds. Not to be missed too easily.