PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Golf’s capricious nature has, historically, made the kind of marquee matchups that occur so organically in other sports something of an outlier.
Consider that over two decades of Hall of Fame golf, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson went head-to-head in the same group in a PGA Tour event 38 times, but just five of those bouts were on a weekend — when they were not brought together by a manufactured marquee grouping — at a major or Players Championship.
That history, however, has been challenged this year on Tour.
The creation of designated events has produced, in order, Jon Rahm vs. Collin Morikawa (Sentry Tournament of Champions), Scottie Scheffler vs. Jon Rahm (WM Phoenix Open), Jon Rahm vs. Max Homa (Genesis Invitational) and last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Kurt Kitayama emerged from a star-laden leaderboard that included Rory McIlroy, Scheffler and Jordan Spieth.
It’s why Tour commissioner Jay Monahan seemed truly optimistic for the first time in a long time when he huddled with the media Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass.
“Competitively, we have seen a supercharged first two months of the year. It’s clear that the PGA Tour stars have been inspired by the opportunity to compete head-to-head more regularly on some of golf’s biggest stages,” Monahan said.
That optimism is the backdrop of this week’s Players Championship, where the circuit pulled out all the stops with a Rahm-Scheffler-McIlroy pairing — Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in the world ranking — for the first two rounds.
Golf can still golf, with last week’s victory by Kitayama being the ultimate arbiter of competitive purity, regardless of strength of field, but the game’s current form of power parity promises more of the same this week.
Both Scheffler and McIlroy can unseat Rahm atop the world ranking at TPC Sawgrass with various finishes, but the intrigue tracks well beyond that threesome. When fans begin to rifle through best-case scenarios this week, it’s a “who’s who” list of would-be champions from Patrick Cantlay to Spieth to Jason Day to Viktor Hovland, who are all coming off top-10 showings last week at Bay Hill.
“I would say the model is succeeding for sure. We’ve had some really, really great finishes so far this year, having a lot of best players in the world going up against each other. Most of that is thanks to [Rahm]; seems like he’s at the top of the leaderboard every single week,” Scheffler said. “It’s definitely been very successful, and it’s been a lot of fun playing. As a player, that’s what you look forward to. You look forward to being there at the end with another guy that’s at the top of his game, and you look forward to beating the best players in the world. So far, we’ve had a lot of opportunities for that this year.”
Helping to fuel this week’s marquee enthusiasm is an equally impressive track record at TPC Sawgrass of memorable and star-filled finishes, including Justin Thomas’ victory in 2021, McIlroy’s lone victory in ’19 and Rickie Fowler’s dramatic overtime walk-off in ’15 over Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner.
The lone, and glaring, exception was last year’s Players, which was won by Cam Smith, who is also one of the glaring exceptions in this week’s field.
Other than an Australian flag billowing above the scoring/multi-media building at TPC Sawgrass, there is no sign of Smith, who joined LIV Golf and was suspended by the Tour for violating its conflicting-event and media release policies. Of all the awkward moments fueled by LIV Golf, the defending champion’s absence is uniquely felt.
“Would it be better if the defending champion was here this week? Absolutely,” McIlroy asked and answered. “But he made a decision that he felt was the best thing for him, and he knew that decision was going to come with consequences, and one of the consequences is, right now, not being able to play on the PGA Tour.”
But even without Smith or the others who bolted for LIV Golf, this Players Championship promises what so many others couldn’t — a leaderboard with the kind of marquee draw to match the magnitude of the event.
“This tournament, in general, was like a made-for-TV tournament, just with the finish and the excitement that can happen,” Cantlay said. “With [No.] 17, almost anything can happen if the wind’s really blowing. No. 18’s one of the hardest golf holes we play all year. It happens to end consecutively like that. I think that’s what makes it so exciting.”
There’s never an intrinsic guarantee that the “fifth major” will come with a befitting leaderboard, but given the landscape of the modern game and a season that has delivered star power with surprising regularity, this Players Championship promises so much.