News & Opinion

Even best golfers struggle at Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Good news, Rickie Fowler. You’re not on this list.

What list?

The Best Players Who Haven’t Won The Players Championship Yet.

Fowler, one of golf’s most popular figures, keeps ending up atop all of the wrong lists. In 2015, Fowler was voted Most Overrated in one golf magazine’s survey of PGA Tour players. The week that the poll came out, Fowler put on a stellar finish and won the Players in a scintillating playoff.

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth stands out among the elite golfers who have not won the Players Championship, but that dubious distinction could end this week.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Jordan Spieth stands out among the elite golfers who have not won the Players Championship, but that dubious distinction could end this week.

“I’m definitely not overrated,” Fowler said Tuesday before this week’s edition of the tournament when reminded of the incident. “It was ironic and fun that survey happened to come out, and I was sitting up here Sunday with the trophy to prove the survey wrong.”

Fowler also is the default answer at No. 1 on the list of the Best Players Who Haven’t Won a Major. Thanks to a lot of first-time major winners in recent years, we’ve largely run out of players whom we expect to win major championships. There’s Fowler and Jon Rahm, who’s so young at 23 that it really isn’t fair to put him on the list yet, and, um … 

Even Sergio Garcia got a major last year at the Masters, the place where he used to see the most ghosts. Justin Thomas got on the board at last year’s PGA Championship, and Patrick Reed joined the club last month in Augusta. There are plenty of players left who could win a major championship, but how many of them really, absolutely, should? It appears to be a short list.

Has Fowler, at 29 and with four PGA Tour victories and three other significant international titles, underachieved? Compared to his level of fame, of course. Compared to expectations, maybe a little.

The list issue doesn’t faze Fowler, not that much else does, either.

“To be talked about as one of the best players without a major, I think it’s a compliment,” he said. “Obviously, I have some work to do to get off that list. I think we’ve done a great job this year of showing that I’m ready to go win a major.”

A fast finish over Augusta National’s final nine was vaguely reminiscent of his Players charge, but at the Masters, it just wasn’t quite enough to catch the unflappable Reed.

“If you’ve won here,” said reigning British Open champion Jordan Spieth, “you can do it anywhere, and Rickie knows that. He’s going to notch one off; he’s ready. He’s certainly got the caliber. I have no doubt that we’ll be chuckling at these conversations in the near future.”

A victory this week at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course (tee times) won’t do it, but it would be good for morale, considering the tricky and challenging nature of Pete Dye’s famous design.

“This course is a real challenge for me,” said Phil Mickelson, the 2007 Players champion. “I can’t believe I’ve actually won here. It’s a really difficult, punishing course.”

Eight of the world’s top 10-ranked golfers haven’t won the Players, but seven of those 10 have won a major championship.

Here’s how I rank the Best Players-less players, based on the current state of the game:

1. Jordan Spieth. If Spieth, winless this season, isn’t the best player who hasn’t won a Players, he certainly is the most surprising. He tied for fourth in his Players debut in 2014 but missed the cut in each of the past three years. On a course where sharp iron play is a must and a good week of putting and short-game play is mandatory, he figures to be regular contender here. It hasn’t happened, and Spieth clearly is baffled by his lack of success.

“The first year I played here, I almost won it, so I just kind of assumed that it would come easy to me,” he said. “I went the first three rounds without making a bogey that year, and that’s not necessarily realistic. The last few years, I came in thinking, Oh, if I miss it in a tough spot, I’ll get up-and-down. Historically, that’s happened, but historically, now that hasn’t happened.”

The good news is, Spieth ranks third on the Tour in greens hit in regulation. The bad news? He ranks 187th in strokes gained putting, an area that is normally his greatest strength.

2. Dustin Johnson. The world’s No. 1-ranked player has a lousy record at Sawgrass. His best finish in nine tries was a T-12 last year. His second-best was a T-28 in 2016. This clearly is not a course that he enjoys.

His most memorable moment may have come in 2016 on the fourth green when he tossed his ball to his caddie, brother Austin, and missed. The ball rolled into the pond. To avoid a two-stroke penalty, Austin went into the water, shoes and all, and successfully retrieved it. If Mickelson can win at the Stadium Course, certainly Johnson can, too.

3. Justin Thomas. This will be his fourth Players. Thomas, ranked second in the world, has finished T-24, T-3 and 75th in his first three. You may have forgotten his first Players in 2015, but he hasn’t. 

“Rickie was three groups ahead of me, and starting on 13, I was six shots ahead of him,” Thomas said. I finished 24th and he won. I didn’t play those last six holes very well, and he did.” 

Thomas has the kind of game that travels well. He has no weakness. Of all the current stars younger than 30, I think he will finish his career with the greatest record.

4. Rory McIlroy. Fed up after missing the cut in his first two Players and failing to break par in all four rounds, McIlroy skipped the event in 2011, which he later called “a big mistake.” He complained about the angles and conceded that he “couldn’t get a grip” on the layout.

As his game evolved, his play did, too. His past five finishes have been T-8, T-6, T-8, T-12 and T-35. A former No. 1 player in the world ought to be able to contend here, especially after his Arnold Palmer Invitational victory in March.

5. Justin Rose. It’s fairly shocking that Rose, a former U.S. Open champion and Olympic gold medalist, has a poor track record here. Rose has only one top-10 finish in 14 Players starts, a T-4 in 2014. 

Sawgrass isn’t for everyone. Its list of champions, however, is one list that Fowler is glad to be on.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle