The reason The Players is talked about as the next best thing to a major is because the field is the strongest and deepest in golf. Until the PGA Tour recently created a spot for the Senior Players Championship winner, anyone who teed it up on the TPC Sawgrass had as good a chance as the next guy.
The mystery is trying to determine whose game best suits the golf course.
The list of winners is impressive, though it doesn’t offer concrete clues except that two-thirds are major champions. More curious is how infrequently some of the game’s best players are even in the mix late Sunday afternoon.
Start with Tiger Woods.
He was runner-up in 2000 to Hal “Be the right club today” Sutton. He won in 2001 with that putt on the island-green 17th that was better than most.
And that’s it.
He tied for 10th one year and finished eighth another. Woods has played 15 times in his career, and he was at the height of his powers for more than half those years, when he could fall out of bed and contend. But at Sawgrass, he’s had only two serious chances at winning.
But it’s not just Woods.
Phil Mickelson has won 41 times on the PGA Tour, second only to Woods in the past 25 years, with four major championships. He won The Players in 2007, right after switching over to Butch Harmon as his swing coach. And that was the only time he seriously contended at Sawgrass.
Vijay Singh, with 34 wins and three majors, was runner-up to Woods in 2001. In his 19 other appearances, he never finished higher than eighth. Singh won 17 times from 2003 through 2005. He didn’t record a top 10 at The Players those years – he missed the cut in 2003 – and broke 70 twice.
Ernie Els, another four-time major champion in the Hall of Fame, never had a good look at winning The Players.
Those are the “Big Four” of their generation. That’s a collective 72 appearances, two wins and only four chances at winning.
“No idea,” said Padraig Harrington, who has ideas on everything. “I’m not sure how you would put it down. You pick four players, and it’s not like all four have the exact same game. Only four chances between them?”
Johnny Miller never had much luck on this golf course, making only two cuts in eight attempts. It was still enough to give him an appreciation of Pete Dye’s creation.
“It’s just a nervous tournament. It’s a nervous week,” Miller said. “That’s why a lot of guys hardly do well here. It’s a course that you have to tippy-toe around, and that’s why Tiger ... he won it, but he’s struggled here. And Phil has struggled here and he won it once.”
There are examples of top players who do well at The Players. Davis Love III, one of the game’s best in his prime, won it twice. So did Fred Couples, and he had a couple of top 5s. Both have had plenty of weekends off at Sawgrass. But this is not a course they own, not the way Love owned Hilton Head or Couples had Augusta National and Riviera.
Couples said he was playing a practice round recently with a young player who asked about the secret to Sawgrass. Couples told him not to worry about distance and to get the ball in play.
It’s never a bad idea to listen to Couples talk about Sawgrass. Remember, it was Couples who once was asked the best way to approach the island green at No. 17. His answer: