PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Here’s everything that you need to know about The Players Championship this week, not including directions to Al’s Pizza, a popular joint just up the road for, ahem, discerning diners:
· The Players is not a major. You know how you can tell? There’s no number in front of the tournament name. The U.S. Open at Erin Hills next month is officially the 117th U.S. Open; at Royal Birkdale, it’s the 146th British Open and at Quail Hollow, it’s the 99th PGA Championship. The Masters doesn’t have to count ‘em up. It’s the Masters. Even the Super Bowl keeps score, although with Roman numerals, which makes waiting for Super Bowl LII in 2018 seem that much longer. The Players, though numberless, is a big deal with a strong field, major-league traffic and an iconic setting at TPC Sawgrass. The tournament course record is LXIII, by the way, held by VI players: Colt Knost (2016), Jason Day (2016), Martin Kaymer (2014), Roberto Castro (2013), Greg Norman (1994) and Fred Couples (1992).
· The 17th hole is not an island green. If the 17th were a true island green, you’d need a boat to get there. But you can reach it by land via a narrow walkway from behind the left corner. For fans of the English language, the 17th green actually is a peninsula green. (It’s not an isthmus – that’s a narrow strip of land that connects two bodies of land.) You can turn this peninsula-green thing into a drinking game with your pals (if you have any) by chugging a beer (or a more politically correct beverage such as green tea) each time a TV talking head erroneously referees to the 17th as an island green. If you’re going 72 holes, though, you’d better consider a keg.
· Is it still a drivable par 4 if nobody tries to drive it? That’s a philosophical question, but the reality is that the 12th hole, remodeled from its previous nondescript design, is now a reachable par 4 that’s guarded by a new pond. Player reaction is mixed. Dustin Johnson, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, says it’s 4-iron and 60-degree sand wedge there for him all week. Jordan Spieth, asked Tuesdayhow he’ll play the 12th, joked, “Well, I lipped out for a 1 today and had it about 6 feet.” Despite that, he said he will consider going for the green only if the pin is back left. Former Players champ Adam Scott says the front of the green is wide open, so, “You’re going to see a lot of guys going for the green.” Will they or won’t they? Either way, the new 12th will be worth watching.
· There is no favorite this week. The Stadium Course is quirky. It doesn’t identify any one kind of player and negates any advantage a big hitter might have. Dustin Johnson is favored simply because he’s having a hell of a year when he’s not slipping on staircases but in eight tries, he’s never finished better than 28th at The Players. That’s a trend you can’t ignore.
Masters champ Sergio Garcia has a win, two seconds and a third here and loves this track, but he has been on a European vacation with his fiancée since Augusta. Rory McIlroy has new clubs and a new golf ball. Jason Day hasn’t snagged a victory since he won here a year ago. Spieth missed the cut the last two years.
Who does that leave? How about Rickie Fowler, the 2015 Players champ, who has a win at the Honda Classic and four other top-6 finishes this season? Or Kevin Chappell, who got his first tour victory in San Antonio three weeks ago and was runner-up at Sawgrass last year?
And the winner is … Jon Rahm. The 22-year-old Spanish rookie isn’t a superstar waiting to happen. He won at Torrey Pines and has been in the top 10 five other times this season. He’s already happening.