Random thoughts after a compelling Players Championship weekend:
• The Tank lived up to his nickname. Players champion K.J. Choi was steady and solid, constantly moving forward, obstacles be damned. Next up for Choi: winning a major. He’s come close, with top 10s at the last two Masters, and if the short putts start dropping with greater frequency, he could win one soon. Watch him at the PGA Championship in August.
• On the other hand, those looking for the Players to serve as a springboard need to study a little history. Several recent winners have pulled disappearing acts. The last three — Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Tim Clark — have combined for zero wins since their Players “breakthroughs.”
• Welcome back, DT. David Toms’ 72nd hole birdie to force a playoff was truly epic. On the hardest hole on the Stadium Course, Toms’ drive found a sand-filled divot, but one of the better iron players of our time coaxed his approach within 20 feet and coolly drained the tying putt. Toms’ anticlimactic bogey in Sudden Death ended the tournament, but the real killer was his bogey at 16, where his hybrid found the water. Still, in getting to the playoff, Toms played some of his best golf since winning the 2001 PGA.
• The 17th hole at the Stadium Course is probably the most divisive hole in golf. It’s great TV, but is it a great golf hole? It’s a little circus-y for my taste, but you can’t deny the drama. All in all, the hole’s a net positive for the PGA Tour’s flagship event, especially when playoffs start and usually end on the island green.
• With all due respect to K.J., the biggest story of the weekend was Tiger’s W/D. Where does Woods go from here? Has his body broken down on him? Is his Achilles injury more serious than he’s letting on? That’s the rumor, anyway. There are also major concerns about his knee. If he wasn’t there already, Woods has reached a point where the only four tournaments that matter are the ones that can get him closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Makes you wonder why he even showed up for the Players. Tiger may ultimately catch Jack, but his mystique is gone
• By the way — Sean Foley? Not to be too impolite, but just shut up. Foley injected himself into the Woods-Bubba Watson dustup, in which Watson claimed — rightly, by the way — that Woods was headed in the wrong direction. Since Woods hired Foley as his swing coach, Tiger has regressed. Foley is like a judge on American Idol, essentially irrelevant but interrupting the proceedings to provide an opinion anyway. When Woods wins a major on his watch, then he can speak up. There are few things more grating in sports than an egomaniacal swing coach.
• Reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell isn’t exactly on a roll heading into his title defense. After missing three of his previous four cuts, McDowell climbed into contention, seemingly on the verge of breaking out of his prolonged slump, before spraying balls all over the Stadium Course on his way to a final-round 79. Me? I don’t trust McDowell’s herky-jerky swing.
Here’s a random sampling of thoughts from players heading into the PGA Tour’s flagship event, The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
On his current drought: “I’ve gone through periods like this in my entire career. There were some down times, but this one has lasted longer than I would like to expect. But it is what it is. You keep progressing, keep playing through it, and I’m going to let it happen.”
On the state of his game: “The whole idea is that I peak four times a year and I’m trying to get ready for Congressional (site of the U.S. Open) and I need some playing time. I missed playing last week at a golf course I truly love playing, but I really want to get out there and play and compete. This is a big event, and I want to be here and play.”
On his health: “The knee is better, no doubt. The Achilles is better, as well. So I’m here playing.”
Current FedExCup points leader Bubba Watson
On the absence of world No. 1 Lee Westwood: “I mean, the tournament is still going to go on. We still have a great field. But you've got to look at his schedule. His schedule sets up where this is just a tough week for him to get over here. He needs some time off. That’s fine.
“We aren’t the media. We don't look at who's here and who's not here. I’m trying to beat 143 people no matter who’s here, no matter if he’s here or not.
“But no, that's the thing about golf, though. He’s from Europe. He plays that schedule, and he plays some over here. It just didn’t fit in his schedule this year. There’s a lot of great tournaments that we can’t play in all of them.”
On the famed 17th island green: “That is a hole that's unique in golf because it has no bail-out. You have to hit a great shot. You have to hit the green or it’s a two-shot penalty. It may as well be out of bounds there because you’re back re-hitting it. It’s certainly a unique hole, and I’ve paid it a lot more respect as time has gone on and appreciate what it can do to harm you and try not to get too greedy because the penalty is so great.”
On the state of his game: “I see some things in my game that are starting to get better and better. I’ve been able to, for the last year, year and a half now, putt with direction. I really know what it is I’m trying to do on the greens now. I’m rolling the ball better than I ever have in years.
“My short game has been sharp. My driving has been much better, I feel, and I’m excited about this week. I feel like I’m driving the ball straighter than I ever have, and I’m excited to put that into play.”
2004 Players champion Adam Scott
“I think everything is in as good a place as it can be, and from here it’s just a matter of continuing to push myself to get better and better because I think there’s room for improvement everywhere. I’m certainly not dominating golf, so I need to keep pushing myself and try and keep moving in a forward direction with it all. But I’m on a good track right now. I feel very happy about where it’s all at.”
On the absence of Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy from The Players: “You know, you miss a couple top 10 players and the No. 1 player, it’s going to weaken the field. But it’s still an extremely strong event.
“I know Lee has played here a few times. But he just doesn’t feel like it suits his game very well, so why play an event when you don’t feel like you’re going to get to it having a chance to win or feel comfortable in it. I mean, I can’t speak for him, but I guess that’s his reasons.”
On his chance to become No. 1 in the world this week: “Being No. 1 isn’t really a goal of mine. That’s really just an outcome of going through the right processes and hopefully the results coming. If I go out and continue to work on what I need to work on and give myself the chance to win this week, and if I pick up the trophy, then great; it’s one of the spoils. But it’s certainly nothing I’m really concentrating on.”
On Tiger Woods: “I see determination. I see a hunger, which are two key components to any player, really. Once you have those things, mix those with hard work and great ability, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
“You know, he’s displaying a lot of patience, as well. Generally I think he’s displaying a lot of patience. We all have our frustrating outbursts from time to time, but I think he’s been very patient considering what I’m sure he expects of himself. So I think he’s a very determined man right now.”