PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — One measure of a golf tournament is the kind of champions it produces. A great golf course should accept and reward all styles of play.
The Masters used to be considered a long-hitter’s paradise, but the truth is, especially after the course changes of the last decade, it tests every part of the game. Long hitters like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have won, but so have shorter hitters like Mike Weir and Zach Johnson, and Chris DiMarco came close.
The same is true of the Players. The Stadium Course doesn’t favor long hitters. In fact, the Players probably has as varied a list of winners as any significant event in golf, including the likes of Fred Funk, Hal Sutton, Justin Leonard, Davis Love, Lee Janzen and Woods, of course, to name just a few.
So, who will win this year? It’s wide open, as usual. I favor players who have a good track record at this course, but even better are those who have been playing well of late.
Here are my top 12 picks to click, and why.
1. Adam Scott. He’s the ’04 champ, and he’s on a bit of a roll. At the Byron Nelson two weeks ago, he let a lead slip away on the closing holes but birdied the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Ryan Moore. That was clutch, the kind of thing we haven’t seen Scott do before. In the playoff, Scott won by draining a 50-footer, the kind of putt that’s more of an accident than anything else. Still, he came through under pressure. Maybe he really is ready to be a contender for No. 2 in the world (because we all know who has a permanent hold on No. 1).
2. Anthony Kim. So he’s a front-runner, what about it? I’ve been a big Kim fan since he came out as a rookie last year. He’s long, he’s terrific around the greens, and he’s got that killer instinct. You saw it in his victory at Wachovia. He doesn’t want to just win, he wants to step on your neck. I think he’s a lock to make the Ryder Cup team, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win at least once more this year. Why not here?
3. Jim Furyk. As a Ponte Vedra resident, Furyk can sleep in his own bed this week. He’s got the kind of precision game that plays well here, and he tied for fourth in ’03 and third in ’06. He had some putting issues earlier this year but seems to be coming out of that funk. I like his chances.
4. Andres Romero. The Argentine is a very promising player. His victory at New Orleans was impressive. He makes a lot of birdies, and the Stadium Course, as challenging as it is, offers lots of opportunities.
5. Stewart Cink. Call him the hottest player in golf who doesn’t have a win this year. He’s been in contention several times, and basically let a win get away at the PODS Championship at Innisbrook. His six top-10 finishes include thirds at the Masters and the Buick Invitational, and seconds at the WGC-Accenture Match Play and the PODS. He tied for third at the Players last year.
6. Vijay Singh. You’d think Vijay would have a local knowledge advantage because this is his home course. Sure, he tears up the range, but he doesn’t play the course all that much, and he hasn’t had much success in this tournament. His best finish was second in ’01, and his only other top 10s were a pair of eighths in ’96 and ’06. Still, you can never count him out.
7. Phil Mickelson. Before his victory last year, the defending champ hadn’t exactly lit this place up. Since ’92, he’d missed four cuts and had five finishes outside the top 25. His game and his putting have been spotty since winning at Pebble Beach earlier this year, but it would be no surprise if he finally gets back in the groove this week.
8. Brandt Snedeker. The boy wonder of the Masters is a player, and here’s a piece of trivia for you. He tied for 12th last year in his first Players. He’s got the game, and he’s definitely got the putter for the Players.
9. Fred Couples. Never mind that he’s closing in on the senior tour, he’s still Fred. There are a few courses where he can still win, and the Stadium Course is one. He tied for eighth at Torrey Pines in January, made a 67-66 closing run to take fourth in Houston and tied for eighth last week at Wachovia. He’s rounding into form, and he might have enough comfort factor at this place, where he’s won twice, to pull off the surprising win-and it would be a very popular one. Especially since he’s a late entry, making the field only last week because Will MacKenzie pulled out due to knee surgery.
10. Padraig Harrington. He finished second here in ’03 and ’04, so he can play well on this course. Harrington was fifth at the Masters. It wouldn’t be shocking if the British Open champion pulled off a win this week.
11. Justin Leonard. Another former Players champion who got off to a good start this year. He was second at the Hope, fifth at Torrey Pines and fourth at the World Match Play. He has cooled slightly but was an early contender at Harbour Town, too. I’ve always liked the way he approaches the game, and he’s a potentially deadly putter.
12. Stephen Ames. How soon we forget. Ames won the ’06 Players in an impressive romp. He hasn’t had his A-game of late, but returning to the scene of his biggest win might just get him jump-started.