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We Saw This Coming

The PLAYERS Championship has always had an identity crisis. Try as hard as it might to be the “5th Major” it will always be the fifth most important tournament of the year.

The latest attempt to generate interest for the PLAYERS Championship was to move it from its Mother’s Day dates in May to this week, the third weekend in March. A move which makes sense because the PLAYERS Championship becomes the first really important event of the year preceding the Masters by a month. Logically that would seem to give the tournament a head start in the spin and hype department and a new platform as the PGA Tour’s marquee event.

To the more traditional golf fan the season does not start in earnest until you are being taken for a gentle ride up Magnolia lane and watching the splendor of the azaleas beneath the towering pines at Augusta National. But that is the Masters and still four weeks away, and this is the PLAYERS Championship. 

Halfway through the 2019 PLAYERS, two familiar faces had separated themselves slightly from the rest of the field. Rory McIlroy and Englishman Tommy Fleetwood were the co-leaders at 12-under par and were 3 shots clear of Mexico’s Abraham Ancer, Englishman Ian Poulter and America’s Jim Furyk and Brian Harman.

Fleetwood has a recent history of being brilliant in the opening two rounds of events but then also wilting on weekends. McIlroy has had a string of good finishes but he has been paired in the final group in 10 events, without a victory since his last win at Bay Hill in 2018.   

Visually there may be no course in the world that messes with you more than the erstwhile TPC at Sawgrass and no hole more than the 17th. The dreaded par-3 is all of 110 yards long (can be stretched up to 135). In non-tournament situations a Tour player could routinely hit 100 consecutive balls safely onto the putting surface.

Not so, once the lights go up. Even the greatest players are subject to the sirens that surround the world’s most famous island green as witnessed by Tiger Woods’s stunning quadruple bogey-7 in Fridays’ second round when he hit two ignominious shots into the water recording his highest ever score on Pete Dye’s diabolical short hole.    

McIlroy and Fleetwood played well but not as well as in their first two rounds both recording 2-under 70’s in Saturday’s third round which would see them go into Sunday a stroke behind Spain’s Jon Rahm.

The 24-year old Rahm, who is on the verge of superstardom, overpowered the TPC Sawgrass to record an 8-under 64 (including a scintillating 7 under for his final 10 holes) and went into Sunday looking for the most important win of his young career. 

But Rahm would stumble early in Sunday’s final round and bogies on 3 of his opening 4 holes turned the PLAYERS Championship into a NASCAR event with 22 players within 4 shots of the lead. One of those players was 28-year old Englishman, Eddie Pepperell whose 6-under 66 gave him the clubhouse lead at 14-under. Pepperell was joined a short while later by long hitting Venezuelan, Jhonattan Vegas who matched Pepperell’s 66.

They would soon both be bested by 49-year old Furyk whose birdie on the 18th hole capped a closing 67 and a total of 15-under.  

Rahm would never recover from his shaky start and recorded a 4-over 76 to tumble into a tie for 12th, but there will be other days for the talented Spaniard who is already a 4-time PGA Tour winner. Fleetwood’s weekend struggles continued as his 1-over 73 saw him fall into a tie for 5th but he is too good of a player not to soon breakthrough.

After a birdie on the par-5 16th though, McIlroy had the outright lead and the tournament was his to win or lose. With pars on the harrowing two closing holes, the 29-year old Northern Irishman claimed his first PLAYERS Championship and 15th win on Tour.

The writing has been on the wall for the last two months as McIlroy has had a run of great play https://www.birdgolf.com/rounding-into-form and this may be impetus for the majestic swinger from Hollywood to reclaim his World #1 ranking.