Maybe it won’t show this week but the PGA Tour is hurting. It’s the Players Championship, steeped in golfing lore even since it began in 1974, one of the tour’s proudest creations, even called by some “The Fifth Major”.
But the 2023 edition is a Players Championship without PLAYERS. Not that many, but too many of the ones who really matter.
Like the 1-2-3 from last year, Open champion Cam Smith, Anirban Lahiri, Paul Casey. Like four of the first six in 2021, runner-up Lee Westwood, Bryson DeChambeau, Casey again and Talor Gooch. Like multiple Major champions and world number ones Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.
Like the controversial Patrick Reed too, though the joke going round is that of the $80m LIV signing-on fee, $60m came from the PGA Tour to help him on his way! The same jibe might just as easily apply to another Major champion, the charmless Sergio Garcia, railing against the dying of the light with snide comments and irrational behaviour.
No prizes for guessing where they’ve gone. And, lest we forget, three past Sawgrass heroes who have burned their boats too, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer. Yes, it’s a whopping big hole and it will hurt, don’t worry about that. And not just the tour but sponsors and spectators too getting less for their money.
But just look at the other side of the coin: how many of those defectors will be saying this week as they hit a few desultory five irons on the practice ground or swan around a beach somewhere: “God, what HAVE I done?”
Because, as the PGA fiercely counter-attack the Saudi marauders with enormous hikes in prize money, there will be 144 other guys competing for a bigger purse, $25m, and even more bloated first prize, $4.5m, than the 48 rebels will go through the motions of battling for in a week’s time when the LIV bandwagon sets up its stall in Tucson.
Mind you, for the extra $5m the Players’ field will have to work harder, 72 holes instead of 54, and face stronger opposition. And be remembered.
Meanwhile, LIV’s opening salvo down Mexico way could hardly have gone worse. Fair play to veteran plodder Charles Howell III but only his nickname, Chucky Three Sticks, has charisma. Instead of the hoped-for tight finish, he turned Mayakoba into a turn-off by romping so far clear of his rivals that the last nine holes were like watching paint dry. LIV and their new TV partner CW Network claimed a viewing figure of 3.2m+ but not many of those will have stayed to the predictable end as there was much more fun to be had over in Florida where Chris Kirk and newcomer Eric Cole were having a right old ding-dong at the Honda.
To their credit, and perhaps wisely, LIV are not putting any of their 14 tournaments against elite events like the Players which has aggressively sought over the years to top the Majors for prize money and depth of field.
Even going back to 2002 the winner’s cheque, $1.08m, more than matched the Majors and what a life-changer it was for Cinderella man Craig Perks whose one-and-only victory in 305 starts came at Sawgrass. And after that one glory week, he then missed 95 out of 130 cuts before throwing in the towel and becoming a TV pundit.
For those of you searching for that elusive 150/1 no-hoper this week (and aren’t we all?), take the lanky, homespun New Zealander Perks, with an old-fashioned swing that belonged to a different age, as your inspiration.
Think Joel Dahmen or Kevin Streelman perhaps if you’re looking for a comparable type of golfer in the current line-up, a steady earner with no delusions of grandeur. At 35 the likeable Kiwi was no star … but for one giddy hour he tore up the script.
Just look at how this outsider finished the job - and remember we’re talking Sawgrass here - chipping in to eagle 16, burying a downhill 30-footer at the island 17th and, after hacking his way down the treacherous 18th, pitching in for par from behind the green.
A 3-2-4 finish Jon Rahm would be proud of and a precious place in the Players’ Hall of Fame. Every dog has his day, they say, but it’s 21 years since we saw a result like that one.
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