The Rory roller coaster, finding a sleeper, where’s Phil and more big topics for The Players

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The Players stands as the crown jewel on the PGA Tour’s schedule. It brings together a strong field, with a huge payday — the total purse has grown to $20 million. A few of the marquee names won’t be around. Phil Mickelson is out, as his break continues. More on that in a bit. Tiger Woods is still rehabbing the injuries he suffered in last year’s car crash. Bryson DeChambeau is sitting out another one, claiming he’s not quite back from hand and hip ailments.

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Still, this is a big one, filled with possibilities — an awful weather forecast that could make that walk to the 17th tee even more interesting that usual.

With that, we run through some of the big questions heading into this one:

What do you expect from Rory McIlroy this week and beyond this year — Good Rory, Bad Rory or So-So Rory?

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Michael Collins: I won’t predict the year because there is way too much big golf ahead for Rors. Here’s something surprising to think about: This will be just his fifth start of 2022 — that includes two starts on the DP World Tour. Hell, this is the 11th PGA Tour event of the calendar year — it’s just the 20th event of the season. For the guy ranked sixth in the OWGR, I expect somewhere between so-so and good. Rory is going to do what’s become his norm — one great round, one good round, one so-so round and one round that costs him the tournament. It’s not a knock on him — half the field will have a so-so and a round that sends them home for the weekend.

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Mark Schlabach: McIlroy quietly has had one of his best stretches in recent memory. Since the second round of the FedEx Cup Playoffs at the BMW Championship in August, he has posted eight straight top-15 finishes in five official PGA Tour events and three starts on the DP World Tour. That includes a victory at the CJ Cup. He won the Players in 2019, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in contention again this week, which would only ramp up his expectations heading into the Masters. He needs only a green jacket to complete the career grand slam.

Matt Barrie: That’s what made Rory at the Arnold Palmer an entertaining watch. We got all of the above. It appeared after his opening-round 65 we were in store for Good Rory. Then a pair of 76s on the weekend changed that quickly. His putting was still shaky, and some of his misses off the tee were a bit alarming. Still, that 65 is always in there. I’d say for the rest of 2022, we should buckle for Roller-coaster Rory.

Kevin Van Valkenburg: I love Rory, I love watching him, but I’m a little exhausted by pre-Masters buildup regarding the state of his game. I think he’ll be better than he was over the weekend at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but outside that, none of this matters much until he pulls down Magnolia Lane.

Nick Pietruszkiewicz: He says he is hitting it well, despite those 76s on the weekend at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. In fairness, most of the scores were ugly at Bay Hill in some rough conditions. What is concerning were his comments afterward. “I feel punch drunk, to be honest,” he said Sunday. “The weekend, it’s like crazy golf. You just don’t get rewarded for good shots. Like I’m venting here and I’m frustrated and whatever. I think as well the frustration is it’s a carbon copy of what’s happened the last three years here.” So it’s bothersome that he doesn’t want to be in grind-it-out mode, which is required to win. As much as I hate to agree with Matt, this feels like another Rory roller-coaster year is coming.

Is Jon Rahm still the best player in the world? If not, who is?

Collins: How many majors have we played so far? None? None! Until we get to the end of this week, Jon Rahm is world No. 1. I completely understand the here and now of golf, but until they change how the ranking system is done, and I desperately want them to, Rahmbo gets the nod. And let’s be honest … on a U.S. Open course setup, if they played 10 times, who you betting on?

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Schlabach: One could certainly argue that Patrick Cantlay has been just as good — or even better — than Rahm with 15 of his 20 rounds this season in the 60s. But like Rahm, Cantlay hasn’t won yet this season, either. Scottie Scheffler couldn’t win in his first 70 starts on tour and now he’s won in two of the past three. Collin Morikawa, at 25, already has won two majors and leads the tour in shots gained: total (2.514) and has been every bit as good. I’ll give Rahm, the No. 1 player in the world, the benefit of the doubt for now. But any of the aforementioned players has a legitimate argument.

Barrie: The rankings tell me Rahm is still the best player in the world, but his putting last week at Bay Hill said otherwise. If we’re talking best player “right now,” how could you argue against Scottie Scheffler? He has grabbed two wins in the past month at WM Phoenix Open, then gutted out the Arnold Palmer. He’s ranked fifth in the world, with a ton of confidence as he heads to The Players. The right-now answer is Scottie Scheffler.

Van Valkenburg: He’s still the guy I’m most confident will deliver in a big tournament and big moment. No one can play perfect golf every week (except Tiger in his prime), but Rahm is going to heat up soon now that we’re entering prime time.

Pietruszkiewicz: His run hasn’t been great lately (and by not great, we mean not great by the ridiculous standards he has been setting). There are a few challengers — Cantlay, Scheffler, Viktor Hovland — but I’m not ready to run away from Rahm. It’s not like he has been packing his bags on Friday evening at every event. His worst finish in 2022 is T-21. Now, with the big events coming — The Players, The Masters and more — the real Jon Rahm will return.

Surprised at all Phil Mickelson is sitting this one out?

Collins: I think Phil is suspended. (Editor’s note: The PGA Tour is famous for not announcing disciplinary action. So it has not said anything about Mickelson’s status.) Don’t bother emailing or calling me out on social media. But let’s be honest here, the biggest question will be if Phil is playing at Augusta National next month or if he’ll be forced to sit that one out, too. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, rightly so, had to send the strongest message possible and this is the biggest, richest event on the PGA Tour. What will be interesting is whether or not Augusta National will scratch the commissioner’s back since he did them such a solid when the pandemic threw that monkey wrench at the tour schedule in 2020.

Schlabach: Phil stepped in a sizable pile of you-know-what with his inexcusable comments about the PGA Tour, commissioner Jay Monahan and the Saudi Arabian financiers of a proposed breakaway league. As a source told ESPN more than a week ago, “This wasn’t just Phil being Phil.” Phil’s colorful comments and candor made him a “people’s champion” in the past, but his recent actions have made him somewhat of a pariah on tour. There wasn’t any way he was showing up at the PGA Tour’s signature event.

Barrie: No. Phil said he’d take a hiatus. My guess is he didn’t want to go to the tournament hosted by the players and create the inevitable media circus that would come with him — especially when his comments garnered so much reaction from other players. That, and the gallery at TPC Sawgrass isn’t, shall we say, of Augusta National decorum.

Van Valkenburg: Not one bit. At this point, I’m not even sure we’ll see him at the Masters.

Pietruszkiewicz: Not even a little. The only reentry point for him is the quiet, peaceful surroundings of Augusta National. No hecklers. Controlled environment. The Champions Dinner could be interesting, when he is surrounded by his peers. Still, there’s no guarantee he comes back for that, either. But The Players never made sense for him to return. Too much going on. Too many fans. Too many other angry players. Too many media members trying to get him to explain himself.

Is it worth discussing whether this is golf’s fifth major or is it time to just move on?

Collins: IT IS A MAJOR!! I will say there is one huge thing that now stands in the way. They should not have moved it to March. Because the old-school fuddy-duddies will never allow The Players to be the first major of the year. Golf, for most casual fans, starts in April in Augusta. I bet a billion dollars if they put the PGA Championship in March and the Players in May, this wouldn’t be an issue anymore.

Schlabach: It’s difficult to say the Players isn’t a major when it has a $20 million purse, which is almost double what the four majors paid last year. That’s $8.5 million more than what the Masters paid out in 2021, $8 million more than the PGA Championship, $7.5 million more than the U.S. Open and $8.5 million more than The Open. The four majors might have more tradition, but the Players has just as much at stake.

Barrie: Can we move on? Please? This tournament stands on its own as the biggest golf tournament hosted by the players. We know each governing body has its major championship — plus Augusta National. We know what it means to win this week. We know what the field looks like. Let it stand on its own as the biggest tournament outside of the major championships. It doesn’t need to worm its way into the major talk. It’s big enough.

Van Valkenburg: I sometimes wonder if we won’t look back, 50 years from now, and just reconfigure our thinking and count it as a major, particularly from about 1995 going forward. What is and isn’t a major has always been a little bit of a moving target invented by sportswriters and Arnold Palmer. The Western Open was thought of as a major for a long time, then it wasn’t. Which do you remember more, Rickie Fowler‘s win at The Players or Jimmy Walker‘s PGA Championship victory? It’s an easy answer for me. I can’t recall a single shot Walker hit.

Pietruszkiewicz: I’m going to use a March comparison. The Players feels like Champ Week, with the majors and the NCAA tournament. This week is a big deal, just like conference tournaments stand as big deals for the conferences. But players want to cut down the nets at one of the four big events. Yes, this is important. It’s big. It’s the PGA Tour’s signature event and run like a major. It just isn’t a major.

No. 17 … island green … Pete Dye masterpiece. Good hole or bad hole?

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Collins: Great hole. If it’s a bad hole, then how come every golfer who plays TPC Sawgrass takes pics and makes videos when they play it? No one (and I’ve been on that hole with a four-group backup) gets there and says, “This hole sucks, LET’S MAKE A VIDEO!”

Schlabach: It’s one of the most famous holes on tour, or one of the most infamous. It makes or breaks players’ chances of winning The Players and it’s where Sunday hopes go to die. Before the 2021 Players, Golf Digest asked the PGA Tour to examine how difficult the 17th hole really is. The results weren’t surprising: According to research by Luis Rivera of the PGA Tour, players averaged a 3.12 on the par-3, 17th hole from 1983 to 2019. That’s 1,771 over par during the 37-year stretch. Players were just as likely to make bogey or worse (18%) as a birdie (17%).

Barrie: Any hole that requires a pitching wedge, a lot of conversation and a tournament-defining shot or a miss-the-cut moment is a great golf hole.

Van Valkenburg: One thing that’s important to point out in any 17th-hole discussion: It’s the biggest green on the Stadium Course. Is it an execution test? Yes, and that’s OK to have one of those. I no longer think it’s gimmicky. I think it’s an important part of the DNA of The Players.

Pietruszkiewicz: Some players don’t love it, or don’t love that it is the penultimate hole and that so much is riding on what they feel can be a gimmicky shot to a man-made island green. But the PGA Tour wants this event to stand out — and that little piece of the golf course helps separate this event from any old stop on the PGA Tour schedule. So it’s a great hole. It offers drama. And that’s what people want to see coming down the stretch at a big event.

Who is the sleeper who could sneak out of Sawgrass with that trophy and big check?

Collins: Feels weird calling Sungjae Im a sleeper because he has a win and four top-10 finishes this season. But for a guy who plays every week, not many people know the name. The man is the epitome of a “middle-of-the-pack” guy. He is 52nd in driving distance, 38th in driving accuracy, 17th in greens in regulation and 43rd in strokes gained putting. Here’s why that’s significant — we’re at a course that favors no one! What that means is a “middle-of-the-road” guy has an amazing shot to win here. Just stay consistent and you might bore your way to a trophy on Sunday.

Schlabach: Adam Scott won the Players in 2004 and he might very well have a chance to do it again 18 years later. He hasn’t missed a cut at TPC Sawgrass since 2011 and has more rounds in the 60s (23) than any other player in the field. He’s among the top five players in shots gained: total at The Players over the past five years. His form has been pretty solid lately, with a tie for fourth at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, which is another one of the tour’s more challenging courses. He tied for 26th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where the wind was a big factor, and it might be blowing again at TPC Sawgrass over the weekend.

Barrie: Sam Burns. He missed the cut last year. In fact, he played awful. But his game heads to Ponte Vedra after a top-10 showing at Bay Hill. Outside of his miserable West Coast swing, he has found himself inside the top 10 in five events. Give me Burns to wake up this week.

Van Valkenburg: Is it possible to truly have sleepers in this era of daily sports betting? I almost feel like the concept of sleeper is disappearing. That said, I’ll pick Maverick McNealy. I’m not sure he’s ever going to be a star, but his finish at the Genesis is more proof he can be great on a great course.

Pietruszkiewicz: Gary Woodland seems to be heading in a good direction. Two consecutive top-5 finishes at The Honda Classic and Arnold Palmer Invitational can make people forget that he missed five cuts in seven events since October. And if he didn’t make a mess from the bunker on 17 — which led to a double one hole after making eagle — he might be entering The Players looking for back-to-back wins.



Author: Ellen Garcia