The book was written on the Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass and placed on the shelf beside the Bible. This is how it is and how it will be – funky course, goofy greens, half-pissed galleries on the weekend afternoons; balls in the water, island green; keep your head, keep your driver in the bag, putt like God and remember this – anyone can win. Anyone…
Remember the scintillating triumphs of Craig Perks (Players champion, 2002) Fred Funk (2005), Stephen Ames (2006) or Tim Clark (2010)? Didn’t think so. But good for them, although perhaps not so good for for the PGA Tour, which back in the day was desperately peddling to the “Players is the fifth Major” narrative to anyone who would listen.
Nobody did, and the marketing department goons backed off.
Ironically, the less the Players has tried to cloak itself in the mantle of a major championship, the greater its stature. Lest anyone forget, Rory McIlroy thought so little of the event back in 2011 that he didn’t bother to turn up. Lee Westwood did the same.
Changed days indeed. This week 48 of the world’s top 50 will make their way to Ponte Vedra.
This upturn in the Players’ appeal has coincided with a decidedly more lustrous list of champions. Tiger Woods (winner, 2013), Martin Kaymer (2014), Rickie Fowler (2015) and Jason Day (2016) isn’t a bad fourball in the broader scheme of golfing history, never mind the contemporary game.
While it’s easy to be thankful for this star-studded turn of events, it is much harder to explain why it has happened.
Perhaps the TPC Sawgrass course has become less inclined to favour chance more than skill. The tour will never blow up the famous but essentially daft 17th hole, however the powers at be have removed many of the gimmicks that introduced too much luck into the challenge, thereby opening the door what might diplomatically be described as ‘flukey’ winners.
If there is one truth about golf-course design that has sustained since the dawn of time it is this – the fairer the test, the better the winner.
TPC Sawgrass isn’t entirely fair, and nor will it ever be, but like all great major championship venues it is fair enough. It is no accident that the list of recent winners is of high quality. Nor does it require any great leap of faith to state the case that 2017 will more than likely continue that run.
Such is the strength in depth of top class pro golf that it is always possible for a relative “unknown” to rise to top on any given PGA Tour week. If that’s your bag, then look out for the talented young Aussie Cameron Smith and the recent winner in Texas, Kevin Chappell. Both good outside bets.
But for every half-dozen middle ranked players in the field, there is one world-class talent seeking to assert himself at the top of the world rankings.
Dustin Johnson may be the alpha dog at the moment but McIlroy, Day, Spieth and the new crowned Masters Champion Sergio Garcia are not the types to cower in the shadow of greatness. Johnson is a fantastic player, but he is not Tiger Woods in his dominant prime – not yet at least.
A victory at Sawgrass for the world No. 1 would make the Woods comparison more credible but his record at this venue is poor, never having cracked the top 20. Rory McIlroy has fared marginally better, however he’s has never been able to hide his distaste for the course or shake off the impression that the lay-out is just too tight for his expansive game. Day seemed similarly hidebound until he won in a canter 12 months ago.
But that was when his game was at its peak. It no longer is…
That leaves us with world No. 5 Jordan Spieth and Garcia, the man of the moment. Spieth has the guile to perform well on a course that demands patience and tactical acumen, yet like Johnson and McIlroy he has never been able to unpick the mysteries of Pete Dye’s design.
Garcia, by contrast, was a winner here in 2008 and has challenged on a number of Sundays.
Players react differently to winning their first Major. For some it represents a career fulfilled and a chance to coast home. But for others it is an awakening.
For so long the Spaniard has been viewed as a talent without the fulfillment.
Now he has his Green Jacket, what better place to let that talent express itself to the fullest extent – on a golf course he loves – at a moment when the possibilities appear endless.
There is time yet for Garcia to definitively state his claim to be the best player in the world and that time is now.