Buckle up: Stadium Course awaits best field in golf as The Players tees off

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays a shot during a practice round prior to The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on March 09, 2022 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images) (David Cannon, 2022 Getty Images)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – No Tiger, no Phil and no shortage of storylines at the Stadium Course this week.

The Players Championship tees off Thursday morning at TPC Sawgrass without the two main attractions in the sport, but that’s a footnote once the early morning tee times arrive.

The field is loaded for an event that’s been called golf’s fifth major, with 47 of the world’s top 50 golfers teeing it up. The youth movement is going strong, with the top five golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings all 29 years old and younger. The talk about a rival golf league in Saudi Arabia has simmered down and the event is back to full, pre-pandemic operating procedures.

That means one thing — buckle up.

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While there have been five double winners of The Players and one three-time winner (Jack Nicklaus when the tournament was at neighboring Sawgrass Country Club), no golfer has ever won the tournament in back-to-back years.

That doesn’t bode well for reigning champion Justin Thomas, who said just how difficult it was to win one of golf’s most iconic events even once. The best finish a defending champion has in the following year is a tie for fifth.

“I’d say because it’s one of the deepest fields in golf and it’s really hard to win golf tournaments. The fact of the matter, it’s really hard to win a golf tournament once, and it’s really hard to win it again,” Thomas said.

“Obviously a lot of expectations and pressure come with it, but I think first and foremost it’s look how deep this field is. It’s just really hard to win a golf tournament when you have top 100 — most of the top 100 players in the world.”

The average distance between multi-time Players winners at TPC Sawgrass is 10.8 years.

Nine former Players winners are in the field — Jason Day, Sergio Garcia, Si Woo Kim, Matt Kuchar, Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Thomas — and trying to join a short list of double winners.

The two biggest names in golf aren’t at TPC Sawgrass this week, with Tiger Woods still recovering from a serious car accident more than a year ago and Phil Mickelson in self-imposed exile after an interview about a rival golf league in Saudi Arabia went horribly wrong.

Woods and Mickelson always loom large, even in their absences.

Numerous questions posed to golfers and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan revolved around Woods and Mickelson; Woods because of his World Golf Hall of Fame induction in Ponte Vedra Beach on Wednesday night and Mickelson because of his ridiculous comments.

But the focus shifts quickly to golf on Thursday morning.

The purse is as big as it’s ever been, $3.6 million to the winner and $20 million in all, and the course is as unforgiving as it always is. The Stadium Course is so demanding that it doesn’t cater to one style or another, which is why it’s always one of the most unpredictable events on Tour. It’s where a complete unknown like Craig Perks can put together four solid rounds like he did in 2002 and stun the field.

The move back to March happened in 2019 and the Stadium Course looks quite a bit different than it did when it was played in May. Golfer Dustin Johnson said on Wednesday that there’s no way to explain why some golfers can never master the curves that the Stadium Course present. Johnson’s game suits Sawgrass, and he’s finished as high as fifth in 2019. As consistent as he’s been here, Johnson hasn’t been able to break through and win.

“Honestly, I don’t know because I like the golf course and I feel like it sets up well for me. But yeah, I would say if anything, that’s held me back, it’s probably just putting around here,” he said. “But I feel like moving to March, I feel like I can read the greens a little bit better.”

Fan favorite Rory McIlroy won The Players in 2019 but has typically struggled at TPC Sawgrass. March or May, McIlroy said that The Players has remained one of the best events on tour.

“But it certainly has, it’s got bigger and better every year. They’ve done a wonderful job with it. It’s been — I think all the players would agree with that,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, it’s certainly one of the — from the start of my career where it wasn’t one of my favorites, it’s certainly up there in at least the top half dozen that I want to play and want to make sure that my game is in shape for.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.