Death, taxes and a Friday night statement from Tiger Woods announcing he is withdrawing from an upcoming PGA Tour event. “It was not an easy decision, but I will not be attending the Players Championship,” he said in his latest missive. “I have to listen to my body and properly rest when needed. My back is simply just not ready for play next week. I’m sad to miss one of the best events of the season.”
It was the same, or something similar, the week before. And the week before that. And the week before that. There is seldom anything new in the world of Tiger PR but this latest episode of golf’s most depressing hospital soap opera struck a melancholic note.
Woods is on the cusp of completing a chapter in history that will never be rewritten, needing one for victory to surpass Sam Snead’s record of 82 wins on the PGA Tour. In less than a month he will have the chance to defend the Masters’ title he won at Augusta National last year, bringing himself one step closer to conquering the Everest that Nicklaus built. And yet the former world no1 can’t make it out of his sickbed to play 72 holes at TPC Sawgrass, a place where he has won twice before?
How bad can this bad back be?
As Doctor Bob Dylan never wrote, you don’t need to be a qualified chiropractor to know which way the wind blows. Indeed, there are plenty around the world of professional golf who are now prepared to acknowledge a moment they hoped would never come; the end of the Tiger Woods era.
We will see about that, but if a new age is upon us then this week at Sawgrass is good as any to contemplate what kind of future lies ahead. Already, there have been signs, with news that the PGA Tour has inked a new American TV (and streaming rights) contract worth an estimated $9 billion. Meanwhile, tour commissioner Jay Monaghan aimed his blunderbuss directly at the backside of a putative rival, the Premier Golf League, by announcing the prize fund for the FedEX Cup series – already at $35 million – could increase by three to four times in the coming years.
It is obvious, then, that what comes next will be even more lucrative than what came before. Less clear is who, if anyone, will dominate this cash-rich world in the way that Tiger dominated his time.
Sure, this week marks Rory McIlroy’s 100th career week as world no1. And, yes, the PGA Tour content creation department has tipped its pitch for the future by pairing Matt Wolff, Colin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland – the three great hopes of woke millennial golf demographic – together for the first two rounds of the Players.
Resident villains Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed grow stronger and bolder with every passing controversy.
But like a TV drama that struggles to capture the imagination, there are plenty of storylines but no compelling drama. Not yet, at least.
The 2020 Players is unlikely to clear things up. This event never does. For all its “fifth major” pretentions, for all that the field is traditionally the strongest of the PGA Tour season outside of the majors, the Players never quite lives up to the hype. It has a heart, but not a soul.
Part of the problem is the sheer unpredictableness of venue. Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass layout is truly a masterpiece but unlike golf’s greatest tests, it has trouble identifying the greatest players. The list of winners attests to that. For every McIlroy and Tiger Woods, there is a Stephen Ames and Fred Funk. Anyone out there remember Craig Perks?
McIlroy is back this week, seeking to defend a title he won in such style last year. He is in good form, albeit not the kind of form that turns Saturday night potential into Sunday afternoon glory. He blew another chance to win at Bay Hill on Sunday, turning in a final round 76 on a brutal day that saw Englishman Tyrell Hatton prevail for his first PGA Tour win. The Irishman had every right to be happy with yet another top-five finish but that’s been half a dozen times in recent months where he has failed to convert down the stretch.
Expect McIlroy to be in contention again this coming Sunday. The same goes for the staggeringly talented Sungjae Im, winner at the Honda a couple of weeks ago and a player who is in serious danger of becoming a permanent fixture on PGA Tour leaderboards. The muscle-bound DeChambeau, after a faltering start to the season, carries an air of inevitability. He is going to win plenty in 2020. The only question is when will the winning start.
Any list of potential champions this week must start with those three names but with the weather forecast set fair and the golf course manageable for even the shortest of hitters in the field, the only certainty is uncertainty itself. In other words, welcome to the post-Tiger era.
Lawrence’s 4 to Watch at Sawgrass
Amid the carnage at Bay Hill last weekend, the Englishman was the only player break the 70 over the two days. He finished in a tie for ninth, an indication that he has the form to make his first professional – he won the US Amateur, remember – win on American soil one from the very top drawer. Fitzpatrick has always been a great putter but his stats this year confirm what the eye can see. He is hitting the ball further and straighter, and with a greater degree of accuracy. In other words, he has become an all-round threat. The perfect profile for a Players Champion.
You don’t have to love the player to love his chances of breaking through. DeChambeau, muscled-up and ready to go, is destined to gobble up at least one major championship this year. In the meantime, the Players could make a nice hor d’oeuvre. He was on the range this week showing off his 200mph+ ball speed, which will be more than enough to over-power the TPC Sawgrass course. If his chipping and putting is only merely adequate then he will be hard to beat.
It’s a long way from Southport to Jacksonville Beach but Fleetwood plays well in any setting. He missed the cut at Bay Hill last week but that was undoubtedly the best thing that could have happened for him. A wayward approach to the 72nd green cost him at least a play-off spot at the Honda Classic two Sundays ago – a disappointment, sure, but all the evidence needed to support the case that a PGA Tour win is in his very near future.
Horschel has risen without trace – a five-time winner on the PGA, a former FedEx Cup champion who few people could pick out of a police line-up. That’s remarkable, which is more than can be said for his 2020 stats line. From his Strokes Gained: Off the Tee to his Strokes Gained: Putting he is Mr Middle of the Pack. And yet, he has had three top 10s this season and sits inside the top 50 of the money list. He lives locally and knows the Sawgrass layout as well as anyone in the field. He is not great at anything but good enough at a lot. That doesn’t mark him as a stick-on winner, but it does suggest he offers a bit of interest for those looking out for a value bet.