PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The Players has never had a back-to-back champion, and it won’t again this year with defending winner Cameron Smith playing in the LIV Golf League.
There’s plenty for the PGA Tour to celebrate with its revamped model and $25 million purse, the richest in the tour’s history. Plus, the weather forecast is much better than last year, when thunderstorms and heavy rain wreaked havoc.
Who’s going to win? Odds are it’s going to be one of the unusual suspects: Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, etc. Then again, a cast of unheralded players finished in the top 10 in 2022, including Anirban Lahiri, Doug Ghim, Russell Knox and Adam Hadwin.
Here are the top storylines at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass this week:
Somebody’s getting paid
The winner of the Players will get $4.5 million, which will set a new record for the largest winner’s share in PGA Tour history. Last year, Australia’s Smith collected $3.6 million for claiming the so-called “fifth major,” which was the richest purse in the game before LIV Golf came along.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the first $1 million paycheck in PGA Tour history went to Jeff Maggert for winning the 1999 WGC-Match Play. McIlroy collected $2.25 million for taking the Players in 2019, and that sum has doubled in just four years. The record for the largest winner’s prize has been set 17 times in the tour’s history, including 11 instances at the Players.
This week’s winner’s purse is even more than the $4 million that LIV Golf is paying to each of the winners of its 14 events this season. That’s probably not a coincidence.
The battle for No. 1
Over the past month, Rahm, Scheffler and McIlroy have all spent time at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, with Rahm currently at the top. If any of them win the Players, they’ll be No. 1 on Sunday night. There are many other scenarios for the trio to be No. 1 if someone else wins.
As I said, there are over 100 possible scenarios for @McIlroyRory & Scottie Scheffler to recapture No.1 from @JonRahmpga, so this is just a brief selection.
We discuss the details of the actual scenario unfolding, as the tournament goes on… pic.twitter.com/EEfqYtxx8v
— Nosferatu (@VC606) March 7, 2023
With a victory at the Stadium Course, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Rahm would become the first PGA Tour player since Jack Burke Jr. in 1952 to collect his fourth victory of the season by March 12.
McIlroy would become only the seventh player to win the Players at least twice; Jack Nicklaus won it three times in 1974, ’76 and ’78.
The par-3 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, with its island green, is one of the most exciting for golf fans and one of the more perplexing for players, depending on the wind. According to ESPN Stats & Information, there were 27 balls hit into the water on No. 17 in the second round last year. That was the fifth-highest total in the ShotLink tracking era (since 2003).
Last year, heavy rain and thunderstorms suspended play on Thursday and Friday. The first round didn’t resume until around 12 p.m. ET on Saturday. Scheffler, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele were the first victims of the par-3 17th. Things went about how you’d expect in 35-mph gusts: All three hit their tee shots into the water.
Schauffele, who was 4 under when he stepped into the 17th tee box, made bogey and then carded a quadruple-bogey 8 on the 18th. He went from a tie for ninth to a tie for 90th in two holes and missed the cut.
7 on the par-3 17th 😬 pic.twitter.com/VbLhsQq2qD
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 12, 2022
“Yeah, 17 was awesome. Eighteen was even better,” Schauffele said Tuesday. “I think [caddie] Austin [Kaiser] showed me the stat on his phone. That’s why I got rid of social media, but I think he showed me like a first ever to go from like the top 10 to outside the top 100 or something like that in like one hole. So like I said, my team’s all about giving me reality checks and I got one.”
Can Rahm get his mojo back?
No golfer on the planet has been hotter than Rahm, who won five times in his past nine worldwide starts, including three times on the PGA Tour: Sentry Tournament of Champions, the American Express and the Genesis.
Rahm looked well on his way to making it four victories since January when he grabbed the first-round lead with a 7-under 65 at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Then things went sideways. He carded a 4-over 76 in each of the next two rounds before shooting even par on Sunday to tie for 39th at 1 over. It ended his streak of 10 straight top-10 finishes in worldwide starts and was his worst finish since tying for 55th at the Genesis Scottish Open in July.
For three days at least, Rahmbo looked human.
“Three days? Come on, two days,” Rahm joked with a reporter when asked about his performance at Bay Hill on Tuesday. “I shot even par the last day. It’s not an easy golf course. I moved up on the leaderboard. That was pretty good, I think.”
Rahm reminded reporters that he hit five balls in the water, including four off the tee. He said all of them could have ended up being dry with a good bounce.
“It would be very easy for me to overthink it and think that something needs to change,” Rahm said. “If I were to eliminate most of those shots, we’re talking about close to top 20. It’s shoulda-coulda-woulda, right? But had I been playing at [Riviera Country Club] or Torrey [Pines] or at a different golf course all of those shots would have been in play. I could have managed my game around.”
Rahm admits that it was probably time for his luck to turn.
“It’s the game of golf,” he said. “I think when things are going so well for so long, the golf gods decide to humble you a little bit. You know, it was my turn to suffer that for a couple days. So just keep on going. There’s nothing, nothing to look into, really. It’s golf and a couple bad days.”
As much as Rahm has won around the world, he hasn’t yet collected a title in Florida as a pro. He has just one top-10 in five starts at the Players, a tie for ninth in 2021.
Fowler on his way back
The highlight of Rickie Fowler’s career probably came at the 2015 Players, in which he erased a 5-shot deficit to Sergio Garcia in the final six holes to force a playoff with Garcia and Kevin Kisner. Fowler and Kisner survived a three-hole aggregate playoff and headed to the island-green 17th for sudden death.
As Fowler did in the final round and playoff, he once again stuck his tee shot to about 8 feet and made a birdie to take down Kisner.
Much of the past three years have been a struggle for Fowler, but there are encouraging signs that he’s finally figuring things out. With a new swing, he has three top 10s, one fewer than he had in 60 starts the previous three seasons combined. He ranks 14th in strokes gained: total (1.204) and 10th in strokes gained: approach (.820).
“It would be great,” Thomas said. “It’s clearly trending that way. He’s playing some really good golf, really solid, consistent golf. I can just tell from playing practice rounds with him or playing with him at home, he’s a different person. He’s got a lot more swagger, a lot more confidence. His expectations are different. It’s funny just what a couple tournaments or maybe one particular shot or week here and there will do.”
Fowler has used his good friends Thomas and Jordan Spieth as sounding boards as he has tried to claw his way back.
“Obviously, I want him to play better, but I just want to be there as a friend,” Thomas said. “I think that sometimes the man in you doesn’t want to necessarily like ask your friends for help, you know what I’m saying? Like it’s not like a cool thing to do. But I mean, I’ve been there. I’ve talked to different friends, whether it’s about specific golf stuff or thought process, whatever it is.
“My thing to Rick is, I’m like, ‘Dude, if you ever need anything or want anything, I’m here as much as you want or as little as you want.’ … This can be a lonely game sometimes. Even with your family, wife, girlfriend, whatever, out on the road with you, it’s still lonely when you’re out there, between your ears.”
Saving the middle class
If the initial plan for the revamped PGA Tour model had been adopted by the circuit’s policy board, there would have been 14 designated events with fields between 50 to 60 players competing for elevated purses. Under that scenario, according to models, about 80% of the players in the top 50 on the FedEx Cup points list would have remained there.
That model was first proposed during a meeting of about 20 players led by McIlroy and Tiger Woods before the first leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs in Wilmington, Delaware, in August.
“I can confidently say that it’s not two separate tours as much as that might be perceived that way,” Spieth said. “In Delaware the first presentation was essentially two separate tours. To get to a place where every single full card holder can play in every single PGA Tour event that season meant there had to be some give from them. I think it was the right thing to do.”
Instead, future seasons on the PGA Tour will include seven designated events with fields of 70 to 80 players, as well as the Sentry Tournament of Champions with a field of about 50 to 60 players. None of those tournaments will have a 36-hole cut. The Tour is hoping the model will lead to about 60% retention among the top 50 players.
“That was an important element to the changes that we’re making,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “We wanted to make certain that there was real consequence and there’s real promotion, there’s real relegation.”
According to Monahan, the tour wanted to make sure there were pathways for players outside the top 50 to qualify for the elevated events. Along with the top 50 players in points from the previous year, there is also qualifying criteria including tournament winners, top 10 in points from the current season and top five points earners from a cluster of non-elevated events in between the elevated ones.
If the model were in place this season, recent tournament winners like Si Woo Kim and Chris Kirk would have made elevated fields.
“There’s not going to be any model that makes everybody happy,” Thomas said. “That’s just a stone-cold fact. But at the end of the day, when every single one of us signed up to play golf, you knew that the better you played, the better tournaments you were going to get into, and the worse you played, you may not even have a job anymore or you may be on a developmental tour. None of that is changing.
“It’s a mindset thing with some people that are upset about it, like: OK, do I want to look at that table or look at that tournament and say, ‘That’s not fair, I don’t get to play in that.’ Or do I want to say, ‘I want to be a part of that table,’ or ‘I want to be a part of that tournament.'”
McIlroy to win (+900), top-10 finish (+120)
David Bearman: I picked Rory in this column last week and came up just short as McIlroy did when he finished as runner up: one shot back. He had the lead late Sunday, even after starting with a first round 73, 8 shots off the pace. I firmly believe Rory is close and this is a perfect tournament for him to assert himself back on top of the golf world. He won here in 2019, has three other top-10 finishes and loves playing Pete Dye tracks. He’s going to need to bring his “A” game for this course and top field, but he was runner up at Arnie’s place without top stuff.
Bradley top-10 finish (+450)
Bearman: The usual names (Rory, Scottie, Rahm) will of course be in play this week, but don’t sleep on one of the hottest players on Tour. Quietly, Keegan Bradley has recorded six finishes in the top 21 this season, including a T-10 last week at the API, a runner-up finish at the Farmers and a win at the ZoZo in October. He’s made the cut at TPC Sawgrass each of the last six years, the second-longest active streak, with the last four being in the top 30. +450 is a good payout, and maybe sprinkle a little on the 50-1.
Max Homa to win (+2200), top-5 (+450), top-10 (+230)
Anita Marks: This might not be a California course, but Max Homa can still win it. He finished T-13th here last year with a closing 66 and is 1st in shots gained approach over the last 24 rounds, a key metric on the TPC Sawgrass course. He’s in the top 10 in almost every stats category and a great fit for this course.
Jason Day top-10 finish (+280)
Marks: The comeback continues for Jason Day with another top-10 last week at Bay Hill. He now has 9 top-25s in the last 10 starts and loves Pete Dye courses. He is a former winner here, having taken the title in 2010, but also has three other top 10s to his name.