Tournament: The Players Championship, March 11-14, 2021
Course: TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, 7,189 yards, par 72. Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Purse: $15,000,000 total, $2.7 million to the winner
Defending Champ: (I love that I get to type this) It depends. Rory McIlroy won the 2019 Players Championship. In the runup to the 2020 version, COVID-19 was spreading at a tremendous rate and the tournament was affected. In events similar to the NBA season suspension, the first round started but was suspended on account of darkness with just a handful of players still on the course. They made the announcement that the remaining days would be played with no fans, then abruptly made the decision to cancel the tournament outright in the middle of the night. Hideki Matsuyama shot a record-tying 63 in the first round to take the lead, so is he the defending champ? Caddie Aaron Flener won the casual Wednesday “let the caddie hit one on #17” tournament by hitting it to inside 3 feet. Nike literally made custom shoes for him with the words “Players Champion” on them, so does that count?
Fun Fact: The course has a very recently instituted “internal Out of Bounds”, at least for this week. Bryson DeChambeau has publicly mused that he might hit his tee shot from #18 tee to the rough/fairway on #9 - about 45 degrees left over the lake. This with the intent of having a better angle into the green. The PGA Tour promptly came out and ruled that left of the lake on #18 (where Bryson was talking about) is now out of bounds, even though it’s literally in the middle of the course. That route has actually been used in tournament play before - by a junior golfer at the AJGA Players Championship last fall (one birdie, two bogeys).
TV Times: Thursday-Friday, 12 p.m.-6 p.m. ET (Golf Channel). Saturday-Sunday, 1 p.m.-6 p.m. (NBC).
‘Dawgs in the Field: 10. For the few years I’ve been scribbling down this feature, only a handful of times have I been able to say ten former Bulldogs are competing in the toughest field in the world of golf.
Russell Henley 6:56 am ET off #10 tee
Kevin Kisner 7:18 am ET
Keith Mitchell 7:29 am ET
Harris English 7:51 am ET off #10
Brendon Todd 8:24 am ET off #10
Brian Harman 12:16 pm ET
Hudson Swafford 12:38 pm ET off #10
Bubba Watson 1:22 pm ET off #10
Chris Kirk 2:06 pm ET
Sepp Straka 2:06 pm ET off #10
This is a big deal. The tournament is relatively young, having started in 1974. But it has risen steadily in stature (and purse) since then and has been called the “fifth major” for 30 years. Of course the PGA Tour itself might be responsible for slipping that moniker into the public domain, but if so, they backed it up with their wallets.
The course is probably a bigger star than the tournament. Starting in 1982, the Players has been held at the Stadium course and it’s iconic 17th hole. The island green is fairly large so not hard to hit for today’s dialed in pros. But with the swirling winds of early March, the Sunday far right pin, surrounded by thousands of fans, and with the crazy purse money on the line; it can shrink quite a bit in size. On more than one occasion, a player has thrown away hundreds of thousands of dollars by being aggressive and/or letting nerves get the better of them. If you read this, you know golf, so you get it.
The tournament truly is the “Players Championship”. Unlike the other majors, this is a tournament owned, hosted, paid for, and competed by PGA Tour players. And since it is for PGA Tour players, there are no amateurs in the field, no sponsors exemptions, not many senior former champions, and that means it is the deepest and toughest field in golf. A win here carries a lot of prestige - you truly beat the world’s best.
While the top pros with PGA Tour playing privileges are here, they’re coming for more than just the prestige. 600 FedEx Cup points are available - the same number of points as the four majors. And if you saw that purse up above... well, who wouldn’t want to win a single tournament that is quite a bit more than Arnold Palmer won during his 30+ years on the PGA Tour? Or 75% of what Jack Nicklaus made? Or essentially doubling the career earnings of our own Sepp Straka to date? Spoiler: no state income tax in Florida folks. Yeah, these guys know what’s up.
The weather is supposed to be fairly benign this week with little chance of rain and debate on how breezy it will get this weekend. And Florida had a good winter for overseeding the fairways and have been able to get the rough thick. There’s talk that the greens are already reading a 13 on the stimp meter and that could increase depending on wind and the superintendent. It normally plays much longer and softer in March, but all signs point to the fact this course has been dialed up to 11.
With so many angles and tight chutes off the tee box, it doesn’t seem to be geared towards Bubba’s ball flight. You might think Harris English and his silky swing would do well here but I think he’s mostly missed the cut here (though he did shoot 65 in the first round last year before the cancelation). Because this isn’t a monster yardage course (7,200 is middle of the road), Kevin Kisner probably has the best chance with his iron play and dogged determination. Not to mention his “drip drip” putting comes in handy. So he’s my bet for top ‘Dawg this week.
If by some freak circumstance a tornado hits Nashville late this week and your Georgia Bulldogs men’s basketball team conjures up some magic, you can be excused for not tuning in for the golf. Me? I’ll be watching the former ‘Dawgs chase little white balls all over Duval County. And as always...