PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Si Woo Kim won The Players Championship and the mystery deepened.
Not because of any number, whether it was his age (21), his world ranking (75) or his position in the FedEx Cup (132) going into the week. Ian Poulter could have won and it would have made just as much sense, which at the TPC Sawgrass means no sense at all.
One of the popular adages in golf is there are horses for courses.
At the TPC Sawgrass, it’s more of a lottery.
No matter the pedigree of the player or the state of his game, there is no telling how he will do at the Players Stadium Course. The notorious Pete Dye design, built out of a former swamp, doesn’t let anyone get a handle on it.
Jason Day is the most recent example. He missed the cut in 2015 by posting an 81 in the second round. The next year he set the 36-hole scoring record (15-under 129) and won by four shots. And for an encore? He closed with an 80 and finished 17 shots behind in tie for 60th.
The best example might be Phil Mickelson.
He won The Players in 2007, the first year it moved from March to May. At that point in his PGA Tour career, Mickelson had 31 victories and three majors, yet only two top 10s at the TPC Sawgrass without ever coming close to winning. In the 10 years that followed his lone victory, during which he has won 11 times and two more majors, Lefty hasn’t cracked the top 10. He missed the cut four straight times until this year.
“I can’t believe I’ve actually won here,” Mickelson said two years ago after he missed the cut.
Predictions in golf are pointless with few exceptions, such as Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines or Firestone during his best years. After the first round of the PGA Tour stop at Torrey in 2008, a caddie stood behind the 18th green on the South Course to watch Woods open with a 67 and said, “He just won two tournaments with one round.” Woods went on to win the Buick Invitational by eight shots, and he returned in June to win the U.S. Open on a shattered left leg.
Sawgrass evoked different commentary.
“How about that?” Woods said to caddie Joe LaCava when he won The Players for the second time in 2013. There was sarcastic surprise in his tone, unusual for Woods because he expected to win anywhere.
No course was more confounding for Woods, who won at a greater rate than anyone on the PGA Tour. Even when Woods was close to unbeatable (when he wasn’t in the process of changing his swing), his record at the TPC Sawgrass didn’t match up with any other golf course he played.
Bay Hill also was feast or famine for Woods, though at least he won it eight times. In his 16 appearances at The Players Championship — 12 of them as the No. 1 player in the world — Woods won twice and was in contention just one other time.
There was one moment when the stars aligned for Woods over the former Florida swamp. He was runner-up in 2000 when Hal Sutton had the right club that day, and Woods won the following year by one shot over Vijay Singh. And then, coming off a victory at Bay Hill, he returned to Sawgrass to try to become the first back-to-back winner. Woods never broke 70 and shot over par in the final round of any tournament for the first time in more than two years.
And then three weeks later, he won the Masters.
“I swear, I really played well this week,” Woods said that day. “Just in the wrong side, maybe a yard here and yard there.”
That’s the nature of the TPC Sawgrass.
One measure of a golf course is the quality of the winners it produces. The last nine British Open champions at Muirfield — and 14 of the 16 dating to 1892 — are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Muirfield is considered the purest and fairest of the links.
Does that apply at The Players?
Sure, all but 12 champions have won majors. Kim was only the sixth winner at Sawgrass who was out of the top 50 in the 31 years that the world ranking has been around. Three of its champions — Day, Woods and Greg Norman — won at No. 1 in the world. David Duval reached No. 1 by winning in 1999. During one stretch from 1992 through 2004, 11 of the 13 winners were among the top 20 in the world.
But that doesn’t explain the absence of so many good players, not because they haven’t won but because they’ve had so few chances. Singh never won. Ernie Els never came close. Tom Watson and Nick Faldo never won, either. And while he’s still only 28, is it possible Rory McIlroy might be on that list one day?
Check out Johnson’s results in his previous five tournaments: 3-1-1-1-2. The game’s dominant player shot 68 in the final round at The Players. It was only his third time in 30 rounds at the TPC Sawgrass that he broke 70.
He tied for 12th, his best finish ever.