PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Justin Thomas walked into the locker room at the TPC Sawgrass just like has done for the last seven years, with one interruption in his routine.
His memory told him to peel off to the right. Then he remembered one of the perks from winning The Players Championship last year, and he went left into the small locker area reserved only for champions.
“A nice adjustment that I'll be able to make going forward,” he said.
There are other perks this year, starting with the direct deposit into players' accounts at the end of the week. The premier event of the strongest tour in golf now offers the richest purse at $20 million, with $3.6 million going to the winner.
The top three places pay out seven figures. Someone can finish out of the top 10 and still make more than $500,000.
What hasn't changed is the fickle nature of The Players Championship. The TPC Sawgrass, whether it's held in March or May, is known not to favor any one particular style of game, whether it's power like Thomas, Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, or precision like Matt Kuchar or Webb Simpson.
“You look at the winners, and it's crazy,” Thomas said. “It's truly a place that I don't think it favors one shot shape. ... It's just whoever decides to go out and get it the best that week.”
Thomas has one piece of history to overcome. No one has won back-to-back in The Players Championship, whether it was held at Atlanta Country Club or Colonial, across the street at wind-whipped Sawgrass Country Club or the Stadium Course, where it has been held for the last 40 years.
Woods and Sergio Garcia went from a runner-up finish to victory the following year, and that's about as close as it gets.
Thomas took the advice of Alabama coach Nick Saban in approaching the week. He's not defending anything just because he won.
“I'm just going to go try to win it again,” he said.
Different about this week is that players might actually carry an umbrella. In a most unusual start to the year, the PGA Tour has not had any round in four states across five time zones interrupted by weather.
Storms are in the forecast for later in the week, with a cold front due on the weekend.
The variety has come in the scoring. There were complaints that scoring was too low on the West Coast Swing. And then Bay Hill was too hard, with only 10 players finishing under par.
McIlroy was among those who thought the Arnold Palmer Invitational might have gone a little bit over the edge with its greens so yellow and bare that putts were gliding more than rolling. He said it made him feel as though he was playing worse than he was.
Maybe his comments after the round came in the heat of the moment.
“It wasn't misconstrued,” McIlroy said. “I was definitely complaining. Look, it was the same for everyone — I certainly get that. But there was a lot of alcoholic beverages being drunk in the locker room when I went in there on Sunday afternoon by a lot of the players, so it wasn't just me out there having a rough time.”
The TPC Sawgrass can rough players up in a different way, firm or soft, calm or windy. There's water in play over the final eight holes, including more water than land on the infamous island green for the par-3 17th.
McIlroy missed the cut one year, won the next, and his next time he missed the cut again. Maybe that explains why no one has repeated as champion. Or maybe it's as simple, as Thomas says, that the field is stronger than any other from top to bottom.
Missing this year is Bryson DeChambeau with hand and hip injuries he says are still not at full strength. Harris English is recovering from hip surgery. Kevin Na's wife is expecting their third child. Phil Mickelson remains on hiatus.
That still leaves 46 of the top 50 in the world. And while it's not considered a major championship, it's becoming no less important to the players.
Collin Morikawa kept hearing it was a big deal when he was growing up, but at the time, the landscape of golf to him started with the four majors.
“But since I've turned pro, I’ve viewed it very differently, and I appreciate everything that’s put into this tournament because it is amazing,” Morikawa said. “The scope, the landscape of everything out here when we show up, it’s all for us — it’s all for the PGA Tour players. And that's why you want to win this tournament.”
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