The Players Finds Its Niche
BY MIKE PURKEY
By now, for all but a few, the debate
should be over. The Players Championship isn’t now, nor will it ever be
thought of as a major championship.
And the reason is simple: The course
isn’t good enough.
It certainly doesn’t measure up, by
far, to any of the major venues in the
last 30 years or more. And it’s not even
as good as some PGA Tour courses
that don’t host majors. Like the Quail
Hollow Club, for one, site of this week’s
Wells Fargo Championship. The players, by and large, love Quail Hollow and
go from lukewarm at best to outright
contempt of TPC Sawgrass.
One of the irritants is the 17th hole.
No major course would have a hole
like the 17th to decide its championship. It’s a gimmick that might be fine
for The Players but has no place in
golf’s greatest events.
Besides, there are no great holes at
TPC Sawgrass. There are difficult holes,
some overly so, like the par- 4 18th.
With a left-to-right wind, no player in
his right mind would hang a tee shot
over the water and hope the wind blows
it back to the fairway. So those who
miss prefer to launch it in the right
rough, which makes the 18th a par- 4½.
But that doesn’t make it great.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with
The Players Championship for what it is,
which is one of the best non-majors on
the PGA Tour. It perennially has the best
field on Tour, and now that Rory McIlroy
and Lee Westwood have ended their
one-year boycott against The Players,
the field will be unparalleled once again.
And that’s what allows The Players
to fill such an important niche, falling
almost exactly between The Masters
and the U.S. Open. Everyone is there
and it’s a great test to see who’s playing
well and who can generate some
momentum heading into the Open at
the Olympic Club in June.
Of course, all eyes – or at least most
eyes – will be on the top three players
in the world ranking – McIlroy, Luke
Donald and Westwood. McIlroy and
Donald have both won on the PGA Tour
this year and McIlroy retook the top spot
without playing when Donald didn’t have
a particularly good showing at the RBC
Heritage the week after The Masters. It
would seem that TPC Sawgrass is too
big a ballpark for Donald, but last year
he was two shots out of the lead going
into the final round and couldn’t run
down winner K.J. Choi, finishing fourth.
Neither Westwood nor McIlroy particularly care for the course and their
results generally show it, except for
Westwood’s T4 in 2010. Otherwise, he
resides in the land of T40 at The Players. But his current form is quite good.
Westwood made the semifinals of the
WGC-Accenture Match Play this year,
was fourth at the Honda Classic and tied
for third at The Masters. He beat up the
field in Indonesia two weeks ago on the
Asian Tour for his only win of the year.
McIlroy won the Honda, was runner-up to Hunter Mahan at the Match Play
after beating Westwood in the semis,
and was third at the WGC-Cadillac
Championship. However, he finished a
dismal T40 at The Masters. He was
second at Abu Dhabi to Robert Rock
and fifth in Dubai on the European Tour.
He has yet to make a cut at The Players, missing the weekend in his only
two attempts, in 2009 and 2010.
(From left) Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald will be among the
headliners in the field at The Players Championship.
Quite naturally, Tiger Woods will
be under the microscope, particularly
since his swing teacher, Sean Foley,
has urged the media to call off the
dogs on his student, which is not likely
since he played like one at The Masters. Woods warmed up for The Players
at Quail Hollow, a place he likes very
much and has won. On the other hand,
he makes no bones about disliking TPC
Sawgrass, despite having won a U.S.
Amateur and the 2001 Players, the year
after Hal Sutton hit the right club today.
But the biggest story at The Players
will still be Masters champion Bubba
Watson, who remains in the glow of
the green jacket. He reappeared on
Tour two weeks ago at New Orleans,
where he arrived as defending champion at the Zurich Classic.
But Watson apparently doesn’t find
TPC Sawgrass to suit him either, missing
the cut three times in his last five appearances and his best finish was T37 in 2009.
So if Watson is still on a Masters hangover, certainly no one will blame him.
So you know what that means, don’t
you? Paul Goydos should have been the
favorite at this year’s Players. He lost
in a playoff to Sergio Garcia in 2008 and
climbed up the leaderboard on the final
day to finish third last year. But he had
surgery in March to remove a bone spur
from his wrist and won’t return to the
Tour until mid-summer at best.
In the meantime, look for Goydos
to make another appearance in the
studios of Golf Channel, perhaps during
The Players. Oh, and he doesn’t think
it’s a major, either. l