The so-called Fifth Major, the Players Championship, begins today, and we’re all really excited, right? Yeah…maybe not. I refer to the Players as the “so-called Fifth Major” because, try as it might, the PGA Tour has never been able to generate quite the level of enthusiasm for this event necessary to justify the “Major” tag. Despite having a deeper field than any of the four Majors, and despite playing at the same very tough TPC venue each of the last 30 years, and despite the Tour Commissioner’s entreaties to the public, we have said, simply: “Uh, not a Major.”
The reasons are as varied as there are opinions on most any topic involving sports, but it really boils down to the fact that while it’s entirely possible in these TV and social media-driven days to manufacture enthusiasm for something, even something entirely worthless-- like the Kardashians--you can’t elevate that something to a status not attained by merit. The Kardashians, for instance, may be famous at the moment, but they’ll never be even remotely interesting. I have a great idea for ending terrorist threats, by the way. We should send the Kardashians over to meet with Iranian and other extremist Muslims to negotiate on behalf of the American people. After an hour or so, the terrorists would send them back with a note saying they won’t bother us again. We’re not worth the effort. I digress.
The Players championship on the other hand remains interesting, if not compelling, year after year. It’s just not a major championship, much like Jack’s Memorial event is not a Major--cool venue, great field, always deserving winners—and Jack. It’s just not a Major. But just because it has step-child status doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate The Players. (Note: Please don’t comment over my insensitive use of the word step-child to denote something negative; that offensive reference is a common idiom and I am simply too lazy to look up a more politically-correct substitute. I love children, and while I have no step-child of my own, I’m sure that if I did, I would treat it almost like a real kid.) It’s played on a very demanding layout and boasts a great finishing stretch of holes, 16-18, that provide high drama virtually every year. This is due primarily to the fact that the 137-yard 17th hole’s island green can drown any player’s chance to win, and has even drowned careers, with one (or 2) nervous swings.
Many people love the Players and tune in just to watch what happens on the 17th on Sunday. These folks, when not watching NASCAR, are hoping for disaster. I for one hope the leader safely finds the 17th green with his tee shot—so he can hit it in the water on 18. Just kidding. I don’t root for 18th hole disasters any more than I do on the 17th. It’s just that the 18th hole may be the toughest 72nd hole in golf. The drive is crazy hard and the hole, a 447 yard par four with water down the entire left side, is long enough that you can’t really lay off with less than driver or 3 wood unless you’ve got at least a 2 shot lead.
Year after year, it seems The Players offers up some terrific golf drama over the last few holes, so it’s almost always an interesting finish. This year, we will be treated to 27 hours of TV coverage (not including replays of Golf Channel’s Thursday/Friday coverage), as well as Live video and scoring feeds for surreptitious viewing at work. So there are opportunities galore to absorb vast amounts of PGA viewing this week.
Some very good story lines frequently arise from The Players. Remember Hal Sutton’s “Be the right club today” moment when he temporarily slapped the swagger out of Tiger? Remember, also, a couple years ago when Paul Goydos almost won? His was a terrifically entertaining story, offering great sound bites in interview after interview, revealing a self-deprecating wit and intelligence that was a refreshing change from the clichéd answers we’ve grown accustomed to. The Goydos story was fun and the fact that he finished second in a playoff to Sergio Garcia was less memorable than the fact that he contended at all. In fact, the Sergio victory was a bit of a surprise, as well, given that he’d not really contended for anything noteworthy in the US since losing the PGA to Padraig Herrington.
There is any number of guys who should contend this week. As usual, the pundits have no shortage of opinions about which players will be there on Sunday, so I thought I’d add my own to the mix. I’ve analyzed the entire field of 145, and am confident of only one thing. I have no idea who’s going to win. I can’t predict the future. “Obvious,” you say, “since you’re writing a blog and not ruling the world at this moment.” Obvious, yes, but if we find it easy to accept that I, a mere mortal, have no way of predicting who will win, why do we subscribe to the notion that others might be able to do so?
Golf is not subject to predictions based on trends, or based on who may have won the prior week, or who might be the hot player of the moment. In fact, frequently a player who wins one week may play poorly enough to miss the cut the following week. That said, there is some value in looking at how a player’s been doing of late, or has done in the past on a particular course in order to make some assumptions about how he might play in the near term. In the end though, we just can’t predict who will have it going, and who will not, during any particular event.
So let me give you my predictions, guaranteed 100% to be maybe right or maybe completely off the mark. Having thoroughly analyzed the field, I have decided to avoid the twenty or twenty-five favorites and give you my dark horse picks. I’m not going to bother with the obvious. Where’s the fun in that? Besides, every one will be watching to see if Rickie Fowler follows his win at the Wells Fargo with another at the TPC this week, if for no other reason than to ratchet up the “young guns” rivalry with Rory McElroy. It takes no imagination to think that Rickie may win this week. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him miss the cut by six, then happily head home to play in the large pile of dough he won last weekend. The only thing I can say for sure is that Rickie will, if he makes the cut, wear orange on Sunday. I am also fairly certain he will not be wearing an orange bowler hat in place of his flat bill cap, even though I’ve suggested this repeatedly to the Puma Marketing Department. Admit it though; an orange bowler is sheer brilliance.
There’s obvious interest in what’s going on with Tiger. I will leave that speculation to the professionals to get wrong. Tiger’s proven the critics wrong so many times in the past that he might very well do it again…or he could have tinkered one too many times with a swing that didn’t need tinkering so that he is now officially toast. Who knows?
The simple fact is that no one is able to predict what’s going to happen, or who’s going to contend on any given weekend, at least now that Tiger’s issues seem for real. While there are indicators that effectively eliminate some players from serious consideration, there’s always that guy who jumps from “nowhere” to claim a big prize. Marketing dollars and TV time focus on a select number of PGA stars and first page leader board guys, so it’s entirely possible for the average viewer to see a player emerge with a victory and think “who is this guy?” Sometimes this “unknown” guy has been camping in the top 30 for 6 months, but because he’s not a marquee name, he dwells in relative obscurity until finally breaking loose with a win. Everyone on the tour is really, really good, so it should be no surprise when a relative unknown comes on like gangbusters, and neither should it be particularly surprising when can’t miss guys…do. After all, the list of the next Nicklaus who soon became the next Allstate Insurance agent is fairly long.
All of that aside, it’s fun to make predictions, although I prefer a more scientifically accurate term: guesses. So here are my guesses for the Players Championship this weekend, along with my well reasoned reasons for picking them.
In no particular order, my dark horse guesses:
- Ben Crane. Until his workout video, he was known mostly for his devout Christianity and the Rory Sabatini snit fit thrown over Ben’s slow play a couple years ago. He always seems to be sniffing around the leader board and he plays The Players well. The workout video showed that Ben is a pretty funny guy, and if you were paying attention recently, you also saw him congratulating first Bubba on his Masters victory, and then Rickie Fowler on his first win at the Wells Fargo last Sunday. That seems rather rare in the cutthroat world of professional golf where Tiger once bragged that his mom taught him that when you have someone down you should “step on his neck.” Ben gets the good guy vote. Plus, he’s the only one of The Golf Boys without a win this year, so the others are probably teasing him about his lowly mid-six figure endorsement deals.
- Charley Hoffman. Known as a really good ball striker and streaky putter, the thought is he will do poorly at a place where you have to both hit the ball well and then putt very, very well. I like him because no one will be thinking he has a chance. I’m going opposite the herd. Many years ago, I saw a piece on Inside the Nationwide Tour in which they interviewed Charley in his bachelor pad. He reminded me then of my college fraternity brothers. Also, he has the coolest looking footwear on tour.
- Bud Cauley. His name is ridiculous, unless you’re a 75 year old retired bus driver. Seriously, Bud? He’s a rookie, and there is no way a rookie wins this thing…so say the pundits. I say he’s a Jacksonville native who’s played the course tons…so I’m saying there’s a chance. He looks very happy in his PGA Tour Bio photo, too.
- Ryuji Imada. He’s made only 3 cuts in 12 starts this year. I’m guessing he will decide to suddenly get very good again soon...maybe this week. Plus, if he wins, I will look like a genius and can go around bragging to my friends until finally someone reminds me that absolutely no one cares that I correctly guessed the winner of The Players Championship.
- John Senden. One of my favorite golf swings, although Johnny Miller pronounced it a bit ”handsy,” which translates as inconsistent. He’s in the top 10 in greens hit and birdie average this year, though. That doesn’t seem the mark of inconsistency to me. One of the less well known Aussie’s, he contends a lot. He also owns a kangaroo, which is cool.
- Ryan Moore. I dig his whole anti-corporate-refusing-to-sell-out-to-the-man vibe. Seriously, I do, even though he now has a sponsor. Nevertheless, I like his oppositional defiant personality. Also, he wears the ugliest clothes on tour. I’m assuming he has someone advising him and Ryan simply replies, “No. I wish to wear mud brown and gray colors always.” I respect his insistence on dressing ugly. He has 3 top tens in his last 4 starts. I also suspect he’s a hippy.
- Brandt Snedeker. I love this guy. He plays fast and seems, usually, to be having a good time. He seems like such a nice guy; although for all I know he uses baby seals to bludgeon kittens to death in his spare time. Plus, I always call him “Sneds” when he’s on TV, just like we’re good buddies. Unlike “Bud,” Sneds is a great nickname. This guy shouldn’t really be in the dark horse category, but he seems always to get less than his due. If he wins, I’ll only claim half-genius status.
- Bryce Molder. He has 6 top 20’s in his last 10 starts, so he’s been lurking around the first page of the leader board for awhile. I really want him to win because I once beat him in a match. It was in a bar and we were playing Golden Tee…but still…I will be able to say I beat The Players Champion in an 18 hole match. Technically, all completely true…no follow up questions, please.
- Bubba Watson. How can the Masters Champion be considered a dark horse, you ask? Well, he’s not playing for one thing. He withdrew to spend time at home with his wife and new baby. I know, what a selfish jerk, right? At least you’d think so by listening to some critics. Apparently, Bubba owes it to golf to play this week on golf’s “almost as big as a major” stage. I like that he told the Tour to go pound sand; that he’s going home for awhile before gearing up for the real Majors later on. He could win from home though. He’s Bubba.
- David Toms. He lost a playoff last year to KJ Choi to the dismay of xenophobes everywhere. Dave, as I call him, drives it really straight and is over 40, so he is my sentimental favorite. Wears a lot of Khaki.
There you have it, my first ever very own Players Championship Winner Guesses.