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A New Player

The biggest news at the beginning of the 2017 Players Championship at Pete Dye’s Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass was the new course design changes that had been made in the last year.

Most notable was the change to the par-4 12th hole. The old version, a 358-yard lay-up and wedge, is now a drivable 302 par-4 that is a perfect “risk/reward” adventure.

The area that was once a large mounded mini-mountain between the 6th and 7th holes is now a lake which certainly added to the players’ stress levels as they navigated the middle of the front-9.

Additionally, all the greens had been completely re-done and re-turfed with TifEagle Bermuda grass which made the putting surfaces much more consistent (the old greens were notoriously unpredictable).

None of the changes to the greens helped newly crowned Masters champion Sergio Garcia very much as he missed a slew of shorts putts including one from 18 inches that barely touched the hole to be 3-over par for the day as he stood on the 17th tee. The 2008 Players champion then holed out with a gap wedge to record only the 8th ace at the iconic island green in the 35 years the Players has been at the TPC. Garcia’s perfect shot helped him to a 1-over par 73 to stay on the periphery of contention.

The leaders after the opening round were William McGirt and Mackenzie Hughes who carded 5-under par 67’s to be one in front of a host of players at 4-under including the game’s second hottest player (behind Dustin Johnson) Jon Rahm.

Friday’s second round produced lower scores as two players separated themselves slightly from the field with matching 6-under par 66’s to be at 9-under for the tournament. 29-year old American, Kyle Stanley who won the 2012 Phoenix Open but who hasn’t had  a top 3 finish since 2013 and sweet-swinging South African Louis Oosthuizen who won the 2010 Open championship but has never won on American soil.

A foursome of former champions was 2-under par after Friday’s round and still within shouting distance:  Jason Day, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Adam Scott (Scott had actually had the lead in the first round at 6-under before rinsing two consecutive Titleist’s on the 17th and 18th holes, making back-to-back double-bogies).

More big stars had gathered at even par at the halfway mark. Garcia, world #1 Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy (whose back pains have become an issue again), Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar and Martin Kaymer.

Such is the nature of the TPC however, that wild changes in fortune can happen in a two hole stretch and while 9 shots may sound like a daunting deficit, with 36 holes to play, a lot can and usually does happen.

Perfect weather conditions greeted the players for Saturday’s third round but with difficult pin positions and firmer, faster greens, the Stadium course would not allow the low scores of the previous two days. Garcia made one of the day’s biggest moves with a 5-under par 67 that vaulted him into a tie for 7th heading into Sunday’s final round.

21-year old South Korean, Si Woo Kim played himself into contention with a stylish 68 to be 7-under for the tournament and in 4th place. In 2012, Kim became the youngest player in the history of the PGA Tour by earning his Tour card at Q school, even though he was not able to play events until he reached his 18th birthday (the PGA Tour has a rule that prohibits any player from being a member before they turn 18).

Oosthuizen played well and was a little unlucky to shoot a 1-over par 73. Still good enough to be only one shot out of the lead at 8-under while Stanley was one better than his playing partner and his even par 72 gave him a share of the overnight lead.

Long hitting American, J.B. Holmes joined Stanley after carding an adventurous 2-under 70 in which the 35-year old Kentuckian hit some tee shots into some undiscovered areas of the course. Holmes, a 4-time winner on Tour and a 2-time member of US Ryder Cup teams, is perhaps best known for overcoming brain surgery in 2011.

Holmes and Stanley struggled early in the final round on Sunday. Further emphasizing how difficult is the test of the Players; Holmes shot a cataclysmic 84 on Sunday while Stanley recorded a more pedestrian, 75 to finish in a tie for 4th.

Kim though would be flawless in the crucible that is a Sunday at Sawgrass and play with a short game skill that was equal measure magic and Seve. Kim one-putted 12 of his final 18 holes to record a bogey-free 69 that left him 3 shots clear of Oosthuizen and Englishman, Ian Poulter.

Kim becomes the youngest winner of the Players (besting Australia’s Adam Scott by two years) and surely joins the cadre of young superstars of golf with his second PGA Tour victory.

Kim’s idol growing up was fellow South Korean, K.J. Choi, who became the first Asian player to win the Players in 2011. The 21-year old displayed a great many of Choi’s unflappable traits on Sunday and played with a poise that would make the “Tank” proud.