PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods isn’t here. Jason Day is also hurting. Brooks Koepka’s head is spinning. And Patrick Reed is still denying.
The Players Championship, the first big tournament and the unofficial fifth major of the PGA Tour season, is here. All but three of the top 50 players in the world are competing for a $15 million purse, with Woods being the most notable absentee as he continues to rest his ailing back.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 1 in the world for the 100th week of his career, is the betting favorite to become the first player to win back-to-back Players Championship titles.
Here’s everything you need to know about the first round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass:
Reed in noise-canceling mode
Patrick Reed isn’t worried about fans heckling him at the notorious 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass during this week’s Players Championship.
It probably won’t be any worse than what Reed has heard before, especially during the past three months, since his infamous waste-bunker incident at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
But the thousands of fans surrounding the par-3 “Island Hole” at the Stadium Course might be a little too close for comfort.
“I think the PGA Tour has done a great job on the security and the fans,” Reed said. “I feel like, as a whole, the fans have been pretty good. You’re always going to get a couple people here and there that are going to say something. That’s normal, any sport you play.”
Reed, an eight-time tour winner and the 2018 Masters champion, has been more of a target than most, after TV cameras captured him moving sand in a waste bunker during the third round of Tiger Woods’ charity event in the Bahamas in December. Reed insisted he wasn’t trying to improve his lie, but he was assessed a two-stroke penalty after the round.
Later that month, fans constantly heckled him during the Presidents Cup in Australia. His caddie and brother-in-law, Kessler Karain, got into an altercation with a spectator and wasn’t on Reed’s bag for singles matches the next day.
At the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January, a fan shouted “Cheater!” just as Reed’s putt missed the hole during a three-hole playoff loss to Justin Thomas.
And then at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, according to the New York Post, a fan outside the ropes screamed, “I’ve got a rulebook in my back pocket, Patrick!” Security officials reportedly removed the spectator.
Fans aren’t the only ones who have criticized Reed. PGA Tour star Brooks Koepka, during an interview with SiriusXM Radio last month, questioned what Reed was doing in the bunker in the Bahamas.
“Yeah. I don’t know what he was doing, building sand castles in the sand,” Koepka said. “But you know where your club is. I took three months off and I can promise you I know if I touch sand. If you look at the video, obviously, he grazes the sand twice and then he still chops down on it.”
Reed, 29, says he is oblivious to the outside noise.
“For me, when I get behind the ropes and I get inside those ropes, it’s, ‘I have a job to do, and that’s go out and play good golf and to have a chance to win on Sundays and to provide for my family and to go out and represent myself the best way I can,’ and I feel like I’ve been doing that,” he said.
Reed has largely done that with four top-10s in eight tour starts this season, including a victory at last month’s WGC-Mexico Championship, which came with a $1.82 million payday.
“Well, winning always helps everything,” Reed said. “But really, at the end of the day, the noise goes away once [media] decide it goes away. I mean, I feel like the players and all of us have moved on, but at the end of the day, all we can do is go out and continue playing good golf and doing what we’re supposed to do.”
Rory’s unprecedented repeat attempt
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
A year ago, Rory McIlroy arrived at the Players with lingering doubts about his ability to close out tournaments. He hadn’t won in nearly a year, even though he’d had plenty of opportunities to do so. He had started the final round first or second eight times since the start of the 2016 season, but he finished second only once and ended up fifth or worse five times.
Of course, McIlroy shot a final-round 70 to beat Jim Furyk by one shot to win at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course for the first time. He won three more times in 2019 — at the RBC Canadian Open, Tour Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions.
Now, McIlroy is trying to become the first golfer to repeat as the Players champion. Since 1975, the best finish for a defending champion was a tie for fifth.
“It is an opportunity, for sure,” McIlroy said. “I don’t think you ever need an extra motivation when you come to this golf tournament, but to be the first one to defend here would be very cool.”
McIlroy finds himself in a similar position this year. Since Jan. 1, he has finished in the top five in four straight tour starts with no victories. There are no longer questions about his ability to win, however. Maybe it’s just that he’s playing so well that he’s at the top of the leaderboard nearly every week.
“When you’re as talented as Rory is, you keep putting yourself there, it’s going to happen eventually,” Justin Thomas said. “He has the capability to do what he’s done a couple times, where he might win four events in six weeks or win a couple in a row. I know he knows that, I know we all know that, and he’s playing some unbelievable golf.”
When the big names hit the course
The Players always comes up with some interesting pairings. Here’s a list of a few that stand out:
|Players||Starting time (ET)|
|Bryson DeChambeau, Sungjae Im, Gary Woodland||8:13 a.m. *|
|Patrick Reed, Patrick Cantlay, Hideki Matsuyama||8:24 a.m. *|
|Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson||8:35 a.m. *|
|Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth||8:46 a.m. *|
|Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff||1:18 p.m.|
|Matt Kuchar, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia||1:29 p.m.|
|Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Xander Schauffele||1:40 p.m.|
|Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm||1:51 p.m.|
|* denotes starting on No. 10|
For a full list of Thursday’s opening-round tee times, go here.
Let’s see what the young guys can do
Golf fans can get a collective look at what might be the future of the PGA Tour when Viktor Hovland (22 years old), Collin Morikawa (23) and Matthew Wolff (20) tee off together from the No. 1 tee at the Stadium Course at 1:18 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Hovland and Wolff played together at Oklahoma State, and Morikawa competed against the pair in amateur and NCAA tournaments.
Last year, Wolff won the 3M Open in his fourth career start, beating Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau with a 26-foot eagle putt from off the green on the 72nd hole. Wolff became only the seventh player and the first since Jordan Spieth in 2013 to win a tour event in his fourth career start or earlier.
Three weeks later, Morikawa won the Barracuda Championship, and Hovland won the Puerto Rico Open a few weeks ago.
“It’s awesome,” Morikawa said. “It will be comfortable to play with those guys. I know we’re going to have a lot of fun. Hopefully, we just kind of feed off each other. I know I’ve done that with both of them before. I hope it just keeps going and going.”
Hovland and Morikawa have more at stake this week than Wolff, who already has qualified for the Masters with his 3M victory. Since the other two won opposite-field events, they’ll have to win the Players or one of the next two tour events — or finish in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking after the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin later this month.
Morikawa is ranked No. 44 in the world; Hovland is No. 58.
By the numbers
$2.7 million: The payday for the champion, the largest winner’s share in PGA Tour history. No PGA Tour golfer made $2.7 million in a single season until 1999, when Woods and David Duval both did, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
100: Weeks in which McIlroy has been ranked No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. It’s the third-highest streak at No. 1 in the 35-year history of the ranking, behind Tiger Woods (683) and Greg Norman (331).
100-1: Spieth’s odds to win the Players, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Those are his longest odds to win a PGA Tour event since the 2013 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he was 200-1 to win. Spieth is ranked No. 56 in the world, his lowest ranking since July 2013, shortly before he won his first Tour event at the John Deere Classic.
802: Balls hit in the water on the par-3 17th hole since 2003. There were 45 balls hit in the water at No. 17 in 2019, the lowest total in three years. The record since 2003 is 93 balls in the water in 2007, including 50 in the first round.
20: Consecutive cuts made by Morikawa as a professional, the longest active streak on the PGA Tour and second longest to start a career since 1990. Woods made 25 cuts in a row to start his career.
50-under: Adam Scott’s combined score in the past 10 Players Championships, the best score under par of any player during that span. Remarkably, the 2004 Players Championship winner finished in the top 10 only once in the past 10 years, a tie for sixth in 2017