The 2023 Players Championship
About a fortnight ago, I was sitting in the normal evening commute traffic on the L.I.E. (if you know, you know), and all of a sudden I hear the friendly and familiar voice of Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner, deep in discussion with another pillar of the golfing community, and morning show staple Gary Williams, on SiriusXM’s PGA Radio. The topic of conversation was Tiger’s impressive performance at Riv, and his ensuing mortality as a major contender. His career merits and eternal contention at Augusta go without saying, but whether or not he would tee it up here at Sawgrass, for the Tour’s premier event, “wedged” seemingly in a perfect pre-Masters tune-up slot for the big cat, was much less certain.
Shoot forward to this Monday morning, a few hours after an impressive breakthrough win for Kurt Kitayama at Bay Hill, and it now appears Tiger will not peg tee into ground come Thursday-a sad reality we must come to terms with, the fickleness of father time. Later that same evening weeks ago, after finally getting home, the talk of Tiger at the Players urged me to check out one of the past tournament finales on Youtube. The selection of choice was the 2015 edition, specifically the playoff between the eventual winner Rickie Fowler, persona-non-grata Sergio Garcia, and the lip-packing bulldog himself, Kevin Kisner.
Three things stuck out to me: the first was simply how close, millimeters in fact, Kis came to securing the baggie in regulation as his 12 footer just burned the edge on 18. The second moment was a brief, but heartwarming one where Sergio put his arm around Rickie as they mosied down 16 fairway, relishing the moment, and knowing that both winner and loser would still make a pretty penny from the largest purse in the sport, but what stuck out more so was simply the camaraderie, and joy of playing the game they both love. Ahhh, simpler times indeed…
The third and final moment that stood out was Rickie nutting it to five feet on the iconic 17th hole, the infamous island green, in the playoff. It was a bonafide, ice cold dagger, and frankly a better swing than Cam Smith would make 7 years later, last March, as he admittedly “pushed” his tee shot to a similar distance, still leading to a birdie and eventual win. The ensuing watershed reunion with his family behind 18 green after not seeing them in person for years due to COVID was a precious moment I won’t soon forget.
We really can’t begrudge Sergio, Cam, and the other defectors for their decision to jump ship to the new Tour, and thus creating a disruption not seen in professional sports, maybe ever, even if we disagree with the circumstances surrounding it. The Ian Poulter episode of the surprisingly intimate and captivating Full Swing on Netflix really gets you to see the other side of the struggle. Sure, money talks, but so does family. No matter where one stands on the ongoing saga, a year later we stand in the murky Florida waters yet again, with much uncertainty still remaining. Who will play what tournament, and what about the Majors, with a Shark, a Tiger, and a Golden Bear in sight, oh my.
Nevertheless life goes on, with this Tour and the other, as most of the best in the world descend upon the Panhandle to tee it up for this “major” event. So without further adieu, here are a few good men who I believe to be lurking towards the top of the leaderboard come Sunday at Sawgrass…
THE TOP DOGS
Jon Rahm clearly is the best player in the world right now-a certifiable brahma bull seeking vengeance from his memorable debacle on 11 here in 2019 when he ignored the prudent advice from his caddie to lay up out of the bunker, and instead went for the glory shot, and instead pulled a McAvoy, thereby derailing his best shot at the title. Bay Hill ended up getting the best of him after a befuddling 76 Friday morning, but with Rory and Scottie not too far behind, Rahm still will be the man to beat. And yet here are a few other upper echelon guys to consider peppering this week as we head back to the swamps of Sawgrass…
Xander Schauffele & Patrick Cantlay are the first set of several players with similarities that I think can contend this week. Despite struggles for both here in years past outside of a runner-up for the X-Man in 2018, we can disregard much of last year’s results due to the historic wind event we witnessed. Both have been on the cusp of a major-esque victory now, and whether it’s here, The US Open in LA, or one of the others, both decided to come to Bay Hill, and performed better than expected, especially Cantlay, so I expect both to be in contention yet again this weekend.
Much like Rahmbo, I will gladly write off the performance of MIGHTY MAXIMUS HOMA at the brutish Bay Hill over the weekend in exchange for some suppressed ownership in the daily fantasy market. Prior to this week he had been inside the Top 40 in every event he played since LAST LABOR DAY! (including several wins and runner ups in case you’ve been hibernating in a cave since then). Much like X and PC, I expect a “major” win for Max sooner rather than later. Tom Kim (still letting the nickname brew) will be the next and final one of the top tier to highlight here, looking to follow in the footsteps of fellow Korean Si Woo Kim who won here in somewhat shocking fashion a handful of years ago. With a victory at nearby bermuda track Sedgefield and dominance at the Quail Hollow Ryder Cup, and despite a so-so end to his week at Arnie’s place, this kid is a certifiable apex predator who I expect to be stalking a trophy come the Back 9 Sunday.
THE VALUE HOUNDS
In Britain’s Tyrell Hatton & Tommy Fleetwood we see another pair of compatriots often priced similarly (generally in the high 7, low 8K range on Draftkings and between 40 and 60-1 in the outright market), who perpetually lurk at similar venues, and who both, despite winning big events across the pond and elsewhere, have yet to add a Major to their CV. I’ll give the edge to Hatton based on his overall better 2-year form, especially after yet another Sunday in contention at Bay Hill, coupled with the image of Tommy going in the water on 18 at the Honda years ago that still is emblazoned in my mind, making me think he could be permanently snakebitten here in the States. Regardless, if the wind picks up like it did last year, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see either of these chaps in the Top 5 when all is said and done come Sunday (Shinnecock 2018 anyone?)…
As the theme of countrymen pairs continues, Jason Day gets the slight edge over his Aussie mate Adam Scott. Both have played much better than expected this calendar year, especially Day, fickle back and all, is so beyond ready to get back in the winner’s circle. Both having conquered Sawgrass previously, I wouldn’t be shocked to see one of them breaking through for a long-awaited PGA victory in a week’s time.
With a troika of college pals: Keith “MAD DAWG” Mitchell, “Cousin Harris” English (120-1 outright on Fanduel even after nearly winning the API, ughhh what?), and Chris “Captain” Kirk, we see dem Georgia Dawgs running from Athens straight south to Florida in an SEC continuation play. All three have either won or come extremely close this year, and with the highest comfortability on southeast bermuda, I anticipate all of them will be licking their chops for a shot at Sawgrass.
We are all bearing witness to the Rickie Fowler renaissance, and boy is it glorious to watch. Much like during Spieth’s downturn a couple years ago, after lurking at Augusta and elsewhere, including the previously mentioned win here in 2015, Rickie was searching in the dark for a while. But since fine-tuning his swing under the watchful eye of Uncle Butchie Harmon this winter in the desert, he’s nearly back to his old form, and would bring everyone to tears with another win here come Sunday. Finally for the mid-tier, I must include another member of our Fantasy “Family Tree” with Keegan Bradley, who has carried his peak form over from his #SwingSzn victory at the ZoZo onto the Florida Swing, and one who I know our pal (and fellow Wheatley Hills alum) @RomeotheCaddy will be backing this week for sure, and rightfully so, Pepto and all.
*These guys may be better off with a lineup sprinkle or a T20 venture as opposed to a full HUMPDAY HAMMER, but to each his own…
Adam Hadwin is no stranger to contending on difficult Floridian treks (Innisbrook, anyone?), and in general a phenomenal putter, and strategic ball-sticker off the tee to boot. After an impressive run to start the year out West, he’s priced cheaply enough, and never too popular, where I think he could be a very sneaky T10 contender this week. Kurt Kitayama is another continuation play here after holding onto an impressive 36 hole lead at Bay Hill. No stranger to big money games with the X-Man and Morikawa, plus Scottish Open lurkage and several other successful ventures overseas and now stateside, I expect him to be a T15 staple for the foreseeable future. The new BERMUDA BENJI Griffin, Davis Riley, and Tyler Duncan are all youngish Bermuda Boyz who have shown they can contend, and on occasion win in KFT and lower tier PGA events, but now it’s time to show what they can do in Big Boy events after impressive recent runs to start the year.
So however it shakes out at Sawgrass, perhaps one day in the near future, we’ll see Rickie and Sergio arm-in-arm yet again, walking into the sunset, for the love of the game….Haha ok no chance of that happening, but at the very least, here’s hoping we can all just get along for the good of the game. Cheers, and BOL this week at THE PLAYERS.