The 2015 season in golf was truly remarkable. From the manner in which Jordan Speith dominated the field and the course at Augusta to Dustin Johnson’s utter collapse on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay to Speith nearly winning the remaining two majors to Jason Day overpowering the links course at Whistling Straits, it was a great year to be a golf fan. And all that excitement brought with it anticipation as everyone waited for the 2016 season to open (particularly the “Majors Season”) so we could see what would happen next. If last month’s Masters is any indication of the type of season that is upon us, we might not even remember the fun we had in 2015. We’re all looking forward to seeing how the game’s greatest hold up at the historic Oakmont at the U.S. Open in June. We’re all wondering, can Jordan add a couple more majors to his bag at such a young age? Will Jason Day capitalize on his PGA Championship and world number 1 ranking? Can Rory recapture the magic in a major that has seemed to allude him as of late? Will another young star emerge on one of the game’s greatest stages? And what will Olympic golf in Rio look like this Summer?
So many questions. But the one I’ve been waiting to have answered for 12 months is here this week: what is the sequel to the 2015 Players Championship?
Rickie Fowler’s play at the TPC at Sawgrass last year was nothing short of incredible – more specifically, his play at the 17th was mind-boggling. He didn’t run away with the tournament (heck, he had to go through 2 other guys in 4 playoff holes to finally secure the title), but he didn’t need to run and hide. He didn’t need to set a scoring record in route to winning what’s deemed the sport’s “5th Major”. The way he won it was perfect just the way it unfolded.
Fowler shot 6-under in his final 6 holes Sunday afternoon; and when he took the tee box at the Par 3 17th, he stuck his wedge within 7 feet of the pin, as the Stadium Course crowds went wild. But that was really only the beginning of Rickie’s magical afternoon. The playoff he fought to be a part of with Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia would force the threesome to return to the 17th as part of the 3-hole aggregate playoff format. And again, Fowler dropped his tee shot within 6-feet. Two times in the matter of 90 minutes, Fowler struck 2 tee shots that few would be able to hit once in their lifetime. But because Kisner and Fowler remained tied after the 3-hole playoff, the two made the trek back to the island hole for the climax to the drama. He couldn’t possibly hit a better shot than what he’d already hit TWICE earlier, right? RIGHT???
I don’t expect the same magical performance from Fowler this weekend, but not because he’s incapable of playing well and even successfully defending his title – rather expecting a result in the way it happened last year would be unfair. But Sawgrass brings out the magic. It’s a special course. The crowds, the island hole, the purse. Let’s not be remiss – The Players is called the “5th Major” and it pays like it too. Someone will piece together their own bit of magic this weekend – we can only hope it comes any where close to last year’s ride. Here’s a few players to watch:
(Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
You can’t help but wonder how Rory will respond after missing his most recent chance to complete the career Grand Slam last month at Augusta. It’s not like his game was looking all that great heading into the Masters, but now after a Saturday 77 put him out of contention what is his mental makeup moving forward? That’s probably a silly question considering Rory has long been considered one of the most mentally-tough players on tour. He finished tied for fourth at Quail Hollow last week and is still ranked inside the top 10 in driving distance. Bottom line – Rory’s too good to not be in contention this weekend. And he loves the limelight and certainly has a flare for the dramatics. What better stage than the Stadium Course.
I typically don’t get in the habit of picking Sergio Garcia to win very often. Admittedly, there’s not much rationale behind it – maybe it stems from him not being able to hang on to the lead in the majors he’s contended in, maybe it’s his demeanor that irks me, or maybe he just flies under my radar most weeks. Not this week though. If anyone has a better resume at Sawgrass, please bring them to me at once! Besides winning The Players in 2008, Sergio has finished runner-up twice (including last year in the playoff), placed third in 2014, holds 6 top tens here, and is the all-time earnings leader at this tournament. Tiger Woods would always say a course “fits his eye” when explaining the successes he had at certain venues. Sawgrass fits Sergio’s eye without question. For a course that forces top-notch iron play, Sergio has it covered. Length off the tee is not a prerequisite for winning at the Stadium Course. Sergio’s accuracy and his ability to reach greens in regulation will give him a really good shot at holding the trophy, again, on Sunday.
Stenson is a guy who I keep waiting to see holding the Claret Jug or donning a Green Jacket. The former FedEx Cup winner has the game to win a major championship. Stenson won at Sawgrass in ’09 and came close in 2013. He hits the ball straight off the tee and that’s what you need to be able to do. What will play to Stenson’s game is the fact he can put the driver in the bag and not be punished. The question will be his putting. How he handles the flat stick seems to be the recurring issue for the Swede.
(Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports)
How do 8 top ten finishes sound? How do you like someone ranked 3rd on the PGA Tour in Scrambling? Pretty good, huh? The catch with Patrick Reed, however, is you can’t take the good without the bad. Two of the American’s last 3 starts found him finishing 49th and 28th, respectively, on Sunday. But his ability to recover and not compound mistakes with more mistakes is a great asset, especially on a course like Sawgrass. Playing mistake-free is not an option for any player this weekend – can Reed make enough shots to be at top after 72 holes?
No one’s game has ever been more simple, more accurate, or less exciting than Zach Johnson!! Similar to Jim Furyk’s game in that his accuracy always keeps him in contention, Zach Johnson’s bugaboo can be his lack of length off the tee. But Sawgrass puts little emphasis on length. His ball-striking will be on full display this weekend and Johnson’s nerves of steel will make him one to watch on Sunday afternoon.
Maybe a guy off the beaten path who comes up this weekend and snatches a career-changing title is John Senden. The 45-year old Australian has put together 4 top 25 finishes this season, including a T17 at Quail Hollow last weekend. His game is very unassuming and he is not likely to take many risks at Sawgrass. If he can limit the errors and scramble in the top 10 for the week, Senden’s play on the greens is good enough to put him near the top of the leaderboard Sunday.