Whew, the first two months of the golf calendar year have felt more like two years. Kapalua legitimately feels like it was 12 months ago, and so much has happened (on and off the course) in such a short span of time. This week’s Players Championship marks the first of five straight months where one of the biggest organizations in golf (PGA Tour, Augusta National, PGA of America, USGA and R&A) gets to show off their best stuff, and I’m fascinated by how it’s all going to go down.
For the first time since 2006, The Players is being played in March (you may have heard about this), which is both interesting and could provide a tougher aerial test (see below) than usual. Let’s take a look at the nine biggest storylines going into this week’s event at TPC Sawgrass.
1. Tiger Woods’s health: Woods would have been story No. 1 even if he hadn’t pulled out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, but now he’s been split into two storylines. Over here is whether he’ll even play, and if he does, whether his neck (and back?) will hold up. Over there is how one of the better players from tee to green so far in 2019 will fare at a course where he finished T11 last year and has won twice (once when the event was in March). I promise you I’m more interested in the latter storyline than the former, but it’s likely the former that will get the most attention.
2. Shaky stars: Joining Woods on the “will probably play but might not play” are Phil Mickelson (because he doesn’t like the course and doesn’t play well here) and Jason Day (who withdrew from Bay Hill last week with a back injury). Mickelson is hilariously playing practice rounds this week and will definitely play (even though he’s hedging for some reason). Day, who won here in 2016, is more tenuous. I certainly don’t expect him to finish his round on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, whether that means an early week WD or missed cut, I’m not sure yet.
3. Slow and soft? We’re all used to a fast, firm and fiery Sawgrass, but that doesn’t sound like what we’ll be getting after an extreme overseeding and a more lush landscape for this tournament. Here’s 2018 champion Webb Simpson on TPC Sawgrass earlier this year: “… the weather is going to present a challenge possibly, the golf course is going to be a lot softer possibly, so it’s definitely going to be different.” I’m not a fan, even though I still think scores could swell simply based on the wind. Still, firm conditions are the best conditions, and a softer track — — is not on my list for top-shelf championship golf.
4. Pre-Masters favorite: With the move back to March whoever wins this week — right or wrong — will likely be considered the favorite for the Masters, as long as he’s one of the top 10 players in the world. With everything building into Augusta for the first part of the season, TPC Sawgrass serves as a much more appealing appetizer than what we used to get in this slot and will likely tell us more than we used to know about form before Magnolia Lane.
5. D.J. and Rory (and Xander and J.T.?): Four golfers are gaining more than two strokes per round on the field so far on the PGA Tour in 2019. Those four are Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele., but it’s Schauffele and Thomas who have found more recent success here. I’m fine with a world in which these four are the four most likely to win this week (even if they aren’t the top four Vegas favorites). I’m not saying I agree with it, but I’ll accept it.
6. Rules snafus: From the “I did not see this coming” files, the new rules have been maybe the biggest story of 2019. We haven’t poked the real raincloud looming over everything, though. That is, what if one of the new rules affects one of the PGA Tour’s biggest stars late in the weekend of one of the biggest tournaments? There would be takes. Interestingly, all year players have been cozying up to the organization running their events — the PGA Tour — whereas in the past they’ve maybe distanced themselves a bit in this week based on the whole fifth major thing. It will be interesting to see how they walk that line this week.
7. Move to March: Since 1995, there have been 12 Players Championships in March and 12 in May. The scoring average in March is about a stroke higher than it is in May. Part of the reason for this is — as you’ve undoubtedly heard by now — it’s cooler and windier in Jacksonville in March than it is in May. I’m here for that, but I wish the PGA Tour didn’t try to soften the blow by softening the course like they’ve done to keep scores as low as possible. Bring me all the 288s.
8. No. 17, always No. 17: The par-3 17th will, per usual, be a primary talking point for this week. Last year, there were only 54 balls hit in the water, but the year before that there were 69 (which was the most since 2007). In the last two years, this tournament was played in March (2005 and 2006) there were 68 and 57 balls hit in the drink respectively, which almost matches the last two years of water balls exactly. I expect a lot of dejected looks come the weekend at TPC Sawgrass.
9. Fifth … major? With the spacing out of the Players, the four majors and the FedEx Cup, a lot of people are trying to make “championship season” or “the gold standard” or even “the first major” a thing. It’s not a thing, but I do think it’s fair to make note of the fact that the Players is an incredible event that has a better field than some (if not all of) the majors in any given year. I’m glad the new schedule highlights that. I just wish it didn’t have to highlight it on every commercial and Instagram post from Jan. 1 until now.