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A Players Player

The 2021 version of the Players Championship was vastly different to the 2020 version. For one thing, the first round was completed this year, while last year’s event was cancelled mid-way through the opening round because of Covid. It would be three months later before professional golf would resume.

Difficult conditions in this Thursday’s first round saw an average score of 74 but one player mastered the Dye-abolical links at Ponte Vedra. A suddenly relevant Sergio Garcia shot a 7-under 65 that was highlighted with two eagles to take a two-shot lead over American Brian Harman. If the outspoken 41-year-old Spaniard could prevail to win his second Players Championship he would be only the second player to record “the Fifth Major” double since 2004 (Tiger Woods won his second in 2013). Difficult conditions tend to favor superb ball strikers like Garcia because it puts a premium on that part of their game.  

To put the brilliance of Garcia’s opening salvo in perspective, he played his final three holes in a total of 8 shots while Byeong Hun An took 11 shots to complete the par-3 17th hole. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson recorded his highest ever tournament score with an 85 while pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlroy ballooned to a 79.

47-year-old Englishman Lee Westwood, continues to defy Father Time and his second round 66 vaulted him to the top of the leaderboard at 9-under. Westwood became the oldest player to win the Golfer of the Year award on the European Tour when he claimed that title for the fourth time in his career at 46. Just last week he was the runner-up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill to Bryson DeChambeau.

Westwood was one ahead of fellow Englishman, Matthew Fitzpatrick with American Chris Kirk and Garcia a further stroke behind at 7-under. DeChambeau headlined the six players at 6-under that also included Harman, Americans, Doug Ghim, Charley Hoffman and Denny McCarthy and South Korea’s Sungjae Im.  

Early movers in Saturday’s third round were Australia’s Cameron Smith whose 7-under 65 left him at that number heading into Sunday and American superstar Justin Thomas who fashioned a flawless 64 that saw him tied the lead at 10-under. Thomas has had a relatively quiet campaign so far in 2021 in part perhaps because of the fallout from a poor comment that the 27-year-old was heard saying on TV in Hawaii at the Tournament of Champions. Thomas immediately owned up to his mistake and showed humility and contrition, so hopefully he has grown from this mistake and can now focus on his game.     

Unheralded PGA Tour rookie, 24-year-old American Ghin moved himself into unchartered waters after a terrific 68 to join Thomas. World #2, Spanish star, Jon Rahm also made a big move with a 67 that left him tied for 5th at 9-under with England’s Paul Casey and Harman heading into Sunday. Garcia, Fitzpatrick and Kirk were still within striking distance at 8-under.

DeChambeau crafted a 67 to be at 11-under but Westwood continued his brilliant play with a 68 leaving him two clear at 13-under entering Sunday’s final round.

Several players were in the mix throughout the final round but it was Thomas who elevated his game by shooting a controlled 68 that gave him a one shot edge over the somewhat luckless Westwood who would once again be a bridesmaid on one of the game’s biggest stages.

In a tie for third one behind Westwood were DeChambeau and Harman at 12-under but this week belonged to the prodigy from Louisville, Kentucky. The Players is Thomas’s 14th career win which is remarkable at his age and he has already created a resume that would equate to a great career for a lot of players.