It’s officially showtime for the PGA Tour’s players as the first big event of 2020 is front and center this week — The Players Championship.
This may not be a major, but don’t tell that to the 144 pros who will be taking aim at knocking off defending champ Rory McIlroy. This week’s event will be played at TPC Sawgrass, one of Pete Dye’s more “Dye-namic” layouts.
This tournament is a preview of the next four months as the Tour’s four majors are now in everyone’s sights. For some big-name players, this stretch is their season. Players like Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka live for the majors. Everything else is secondary.
However, there’s some bad news for the tournament and golf fans. Tiger is sitting out this event after also sitting out last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.
It’s not only the money and FedEx Cup points that gets players fired up for this stretch, it’s the prestige. Most golf fans probably can’t tell you who won last year’s Sanderson Farms Championship or the John Deere Classic. But ask them about The Players Championship or the majors and the names roll off the tongue.
To refresh your memory, it was McIlroy at The Players, Woods at the Masters, Koepka at the PGA Championship, Gary Woodland at the U.S. Open and Shane Lowry at the Open Championship.
But now it’s one year later and we’re back at TPC Sawgrass, home to one of the most famous holes in golf, the par-3 17th.
It’s one of those golf holes that is dumbfounding. At 137 yards it’s nothing but a wedge, and an easy one at that. But then there’s that one intimidating factor: there’s water everywhere. Short, long, left or right and you’re re-teeing. Just ask Bob Tway. He’s got the record on the hole when it comes to the pros as he put a 17 on the scorecard back in 2005 which included four shots in the water and a three-putt to end the disaster.
For the record, Aaron Baddeley has hit the most balls into the water on this hole over a career, 13, with Phil Mickelson and Tway a close second at 9.
Through the years there have been 802 shots into the water by pros since the Tour started keeping track in 2003. That’s just the pros. Overall, the club removes some 100,000 golf balls per year from that devious golf hole.
But, enough about the negative. Let’s look at the positive and what it’s going to take to win this week.
Let’s start with the final score. The course isn’t a pushover, but it’s also not very forgiving. The winning score the last seven years has been at least 10-under-par, ranging from 18-under to 10-under. So we know we’ve likely got to get to double digits to have a chance.
Next we’re going with a few scoring averages that really stand out. And, surprise, the first one on that list is McIlroy. He’s averaging 68.437 with Webb Simpson a distant second at 68.628.
But there’s more. McIlroy has an impressive seven straight top-five finishes, including wins in the Tour Championship in last year’s final event as well as the WGC-HSBC tournament this year.
He did have a horrible final round last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and wound up T-5, but we’re going with the assumption that score will fire him up that much more in his title defense this week.
At 8-1 he doesn’t give us great odds, but do you want to bet against him? We don’t.
But we also have another player who’s almost as hot as McIlroy. A look a little further down that scoring list we find a guy who just keeps amazing everyone with his game, his endurance and his swing — Sungjae Im at 30-1. He comes in at 69.623 scoring average, good enough for 10th in that category.
Im’s only in his second year on the PGA Tour but he broke through for that first victory two weeks ago and was third this past week at Arnie’s event. Maybe it’s already time for his first big-time victory.