THE PLAYERS have arrived. The PGA Tour will continue to maintain that this is the “5th Major” but it is better thought of as a significant event on the PGA Tour schedule. It takes far more than a quality field, a distinctive golf course, and capital letters in your title to be any more than that, no matter how you package and promote it.
A near $10 million dollar purse ($9.5, in fact) gets the interest of every player in the field, with $1.710 million of that going to the winner.
Tim Clark was the big winner in 2010, making him the only player besides Craig Perks in 2002 to make THE PLAYERS his first PGA Tour victory. Prior to his breakthrough at TPC Sawgrass last year, Clark had amassed 39 career top 10s on the PGA TOUR without a victory, second only to Bobby Wadkins’ 50.
Clark was spectacular in his pursuit of THE PLAYERS title. Over the final 26 holes of the tournament he did not make a single bogey and make the largest 36-hole charge in the history of the event. He capped that with an 8-foot par putt on the final hole to shoot 67 on Sunday to beat Robert Allenby by a single stroke. His scores of 66-67 on the weekend was the best total since Fred Couples shot 132 to win in 1996.
Clark is back to defend but it may be largely a ceremonial appearance as he is still recovering from an elbow injury. He did play at the Masters after an 11-week break but missed the cut. One classy move by him this week was to have the Champions Flag at TPC Sawgrass changed to the Spanish one is respect of Seve Ballesteros, who passed this past weekend.
Also making a return of sorts this week is Tiger Woods who missed the Wells Fargo Championship with a couple lower body injuries. Woods only played three rounds (70-71-71) in the 2010 PLAYERS; he was forced to withdraw with a neck injury after the third round. A lot of eyes will be on him this week as it also marks the 10th anniversary of his triumph in 2001 that was punctuated by a 60-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole in the final round. Woods has never missed the cut in 13-career appearances at THE PLAYERS.
As always, the field is outstanding with all the current major champions Charl Schwartzel (2011 Masters); Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open); Louis Oosthuizen (2010 British Open) and Martin Kaymer (2010 PGA Championship), here to contend.
The FedEx Cup Points leader, Bubba Watson, will try and improve his Sawgrass record. The plate with the most PGA Tour wins since last year’s championship (3) has made four appearances in this tournament with a tie for 37th in 2009 his best showing. He missed the cut in 2007, 2008, and 2010. In 10 career rounds at TPC Sawgrass, Watson has broken par just twice, firing a opening round 5-under 67 in 2009 and a 71 in the first round last year.
In addition to these players, Italy’s Matteo Manassero will become the youngest player ever to compete at THE PLAYERS when he tees it up this week at the age of 18 years, 23 days on Thursday. He qualified for THE PLAYERS by virtue of his standing in the Official World Golf Ranking (No. 33). Manassero surpasses Rory McIlroy, who set the record in 2009 at the age of 20 when he made his first start at THE PLAYERS.
So who am I picking this week as the potential winner? I’ll take an entire country in fact and go with a player from Australia. Twelve Aussies are qualified for the field, only the United States has more players. Three Australians, Adam Scott (2004), Steve Elkington (1991 and 1997) and Greg Norman (1994), have combined to win four titles at THE PLAYERS. I think they will be joined by countryman Robert Allenby this week if he can get his outing in order. His surgical ball striking ability is ideally suited to the Stadium Course and he has what it takes to move up one notch higher from his 2nd place finish in 2010.
Similar things can be said of Luke Donald, my back-up pick of the week, who is poised for a big win and don’t be surprised to see a Molonari on the leaderboard come Sunday, both Francesco (No. 19) and Edoardo (No. 29) qualified for THE PLAYERS through the Official World Golf Ranking. The duo will become the ninth set of brothers to compete in THE PLAYERS in the same year and the first since David and Kevin Sutherland in 2000.
Dates: May 9-15, 2011
Where: THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
Par/Yards: 36-36—72 / 7,215
Defending Champion: Tim Clark
Purse: $9,500,000; Winner’s Share: $1,710,000
Format: 72-hole stroke play