If marketing budgets (bottomless), prize funds ($12.5 million) and PGA Tour desire counted for anything then this week’s Players would be the first Major championship of the season.
Alas, membership of golf’s most exclusive club is reserved for just four events, which leaves this week’s tournament at TPC Sawgrass looking more forlorn than it really should be.
After all, the Players has a fantastic field – arguably stronger, and undoubtedly deeper, than three of the four majors. The TV ratings are great. It is played in front of big crowds at an iconic venue. First staged in 1974, it is hardly less historic than the PGA Championship, which has only been played in its current stroke play format since 1958. So what’s the problem?
It depends on who you ask. Golf’s snobbish element, the blazered types who still hold power in the dusty recesses of their own minds, take a certain pleasure in denying the otherwise omnipotent PGA Tour the one thing it craves – its own major championship. For some golfing connoisseurs, there is nothing less alluring than Eau de Desperation. The more the Players strives for ‘major’ status the more implacable its critics become.
Then there is the TPC Sawgrass course itself. Few deny it is one of the most striking settings in golf but plenty argue it is unworthy of a major championship, not least because the penultimate hole on Sunday afternoon is a made-for-TV par-three – the famous/infamous 17th- where history can switch on a lucky bounce off a railway sleeper or a freak gust of wind. By all means, design and build an “island green” but just don’t expect to be taken too seriously.
Sure, the tournament has produced its share of top-quality winners. Tiger has won a couple of times in his career. Phil Mickelson, too – much to the surprise of many, including Mickelson. Jason Day has won it in recent times. So, too, has Rickie Fowler, who produced a brilliant back nine charge in 2015 before eventually holding off Sergio in a play-off.
But far too often down the years, the leaderboard on Sunday has had the look of a middle-ranking PGA Tour event. Sometimes – too many times for comfort – the eventual winner has been a middle-ranking PGA Tour pro, the likes of Fred Funk and Stephen Ames.
No offence to either Funk or Ames but even the PGA Tour recognised that change was needed. The tournament switched in 2007 from March to May, a change that produced an uptick in the quality of winners but reduced its status. It became just another event between the Masters and the US Open. Hence, the change back to March, starting on Thursday.
TV viewers will notice some visual changes – more and bigger grandstands, greener grass (the course has been overseeded with rye grass) – coming on top of significant course alterations in the last couple of years. The change in date, to a marginally cooler month, means the course will be playing a little longer than it did in May.
Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy carry the mantle of favourites but given their past records – Johnson’s best finish in 10 appearances has been 12th, Rory has missed four cuts in nine – and given that the course offers very little advantage to the longer hitters it is hard to believe they will prevail.
The most recent history of the Players in March favours the less explosive kind of player.
The onus is on precision not length, the advantage falling to the plotter rather than the bomber. In normal circumstances, the temptation might be to hand the trophy over to Francesco Molinari and be done with it. He is the kind for player for whom this lay-out might have been conceived. But the Italian won at Bay Hill on Sunday, an effort that will surely have sapped his energy.
Assuming Frankie can’t scale the heights for a second successive Sunday, logic suggest the winner of the 2019 Players will be of similar ilk – a good ball-striker with a premium short game and a clear mind.
There are still plenty of those around, even in this day and age of 340-yard tee shots. Xander Schauffele, who finished second on his Players’ debut last year, and Lucas Glover, who is mining a rich vein of form currently and has a good record on the Pete Dye lay-out, are being heavily touted by the US-based commentators. But why not a winner from this side of the Atlantic?
It been more than 30 years since a British player won at Sawgrass – Sandy Lyle in 1987 – so perhaps it is time for the law of averages to have a say. If TPC Sawgrass favours a Molinari type, Frankie’s Ryder Cup chum Tommy Fleetwood is the one player who immediately springs to mind – precise ball-striker, good putter and he’s in form, as he showed in finishing third at Bay Hill. But there are a few more. Ian Poulter has come close here before and is in decent form. Matthew Fitzpatrick, who led at Bay Hill after three rounds before slipping back a place on Sunday, ought to be another contender.
Those three represent the most obvious chance to a losing streak that stretches all the way back to big Sandy but for those who prefer to their British glory served up with an extra dollop of value, there is no better choice than Matt Wallace. He lacks the American media profile of the others but he’s a proven winner in Europe and seems intent on making a name himself in the States, as evidenced by his hard-charging effort at Arnie’s place on Sunday before eventually coming up short.
The PGA Tour, with its dreams its major championship status, will be less than thrilled to see a player like Wallace prevail on Sunday afternoon but at 80-1 he’s the kind of winner the rest of us will find easy to love.