PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — You take your minor victories where you can get them, so rejoice, all you minions slaving away at PGA Tour headquarters, because I'm sending a small win your way.
I don't believe in the myth of the fifth major, and the Players is definitely not a major, but a victory there is something to look at when considering a player for the World Golf Hall of Fame. And in another moral victory for the tournament, I'll depart from doing my usual Best Player to Never Win a Major list and offer up instead the Best Player to Never Win a Players list. Seriously, it's progress.
One. Bubba Watson. Bubba Golf is the flavor of the month after his second Masters win. Who's playing any better than him this year? But Bubba's power advantage is diminished by the funkiness that is the Stadium Course — he's missed the cut there three times in six tries and never finished better than 37th. But if Phil and Tiger can win a Players, why not Bubba? He just has to confine himself to dinking it around, which is probably not impossible for a guy who won the Travelers at TPC River Highlands.
Two. Justin Rose. Bubba's woes at Sawgrass are surprising, but so are those of the reigning U.S. Open champion. In 10 Players starts, Rose has five missed cuts and no top-20 finishes, plus seven rounds of 75 or higher, including a pair of 78s. Clearly, this is not his cup of tea.
Three. Rory McIlroy. This is not Rory's favorite course, either. He rather famously missed the cut his first three tries, then finally shot 66 in the opening round last year and tied for eighth. As it does with Watson, the Stadium Course — with its trees and doglegs and railroad ties — reins in Rory's power, and when you're used to crushing drivers, it's hard to get fired up about bunting 3-irons and hybrids around a course.
Four. Jim Furyk. The guy is a Ponte Vedra Beach resident, so this is a home game for him, and his shotmaking skills mean the course should be right up his alley. He's at least been close to winning — in 17 Players starts, Furyk has a third, a fourth and a fifth to show for it. He's still waiting for the big week. On the plus side, he's got year-round access to Al's, the legendary pizza diner just up the road.
Five. Vijay Singh. Another local who is known for tearing up the range with prodigious practice sessions, Vijay had a chance to win in 2001, when Tiger Woods beat him by a shot. The big Fijian has had only two other top-10 finishes here, though, and has missed the cut for four straight years. Maybe he should spend less time on the range and more on the course, even if it is always swarming with tourist hacks who pay top dollar to chunk shots into the lake at 17.
Six. Luke Donald. It's easy to forget Donald was No. 1 in the world not that long ago. He's had some good weeks here. He was second in '05, and fourth and sixth in 2011 and '12, respectively. His course-management and precision short game play well here.
Seven. Lee Westwood. A guy whose sponsor was UPS is swimming upstream on a tour that ends in the FedEx Cup. Westwood was never a huge fan of the American tour, at least until he moved to Florida two years ago so he could hone his skills all winter. Great ballstriking works anywhere, though, and despite famously skipping the Players a few times, he's finished fourth, fifth and sixth. FYI: If you win this, Lee, it still doesn't count as a major.
Eight. Paul Goydos. All right, I was just checking to see if you read this far down. Our man Goydos nearly won a few years ago, losing a playoff to Sergio Garcia when Goydos opened the sudden-death playoff by dunking his shot in the lake at the 17th. He wore a "Dirtbags" ballcap that week in honor of his school, Long Beach State University, and pretty much stole the show. Except for the part about winning. He would've been the only player in history to have worn a Dirtbags cap and a Fu Manchu mustache (at Bay Hill) for his only two Tour wins.
Nine. Ernie Els. The four-time major winner finished sixth in 2008 and has won over $1.2 million in this event since 1993. Only one of his last 26 Players rounds was in the 60s, however, and he has missed four cuts in his last four starts at TPC Sawgrass.
Ten. Webb Simpson. The former U.S. Open champ shot an opening-round 67 last year, which means he finally started to decipher the Stadium course on his fifth try. He holed a cool bunker shot at 17 in last year's second round, and flirted with the lead during the third round before fading to finish 15th. A Webb win this week would not be a monumental surprise.
May The Force be with you, gents.
Rank and file
I'm continuing my ongoing rant about how unresponsive the Official World Golf Ranking is to change, especially for players who haven't done Jack Squat. The Ranking does a nice job reflecting the hot play of a guy who has just won; it just takes too long for him to spiral back down.
Take a look at these two rankings and tell me which one better reflects the current state of golf. The first one is the OWGR. The second is based only on this year's ranking points gained.
You'll note that none of the top three in the current OWGR make the top ten in my more current list, and only five players make both lists. Also: A tip of the cap to Patrick Reed, a self-proclaimed top-five player. He is indeed among the top five on the second list.
OWGR: 1, Tiger Woods. 2, Adam Scott. 3, Henrik Stenson. 4, Bubba Watson. 5, Matt Kuchar. 6, Jason Day. 7. Jordan Spieth. 8, Phil Mickelson. 9, Sergio Garcia. 10, Justin Rose.
This year: 1, Bubba Watson. 2, Matt Kuchar. 3, Patrick Reed. 4, Jordan Spieth. 5, Jimmy Walker. 6, Jason Day. 7, Rory McIlroy. 8, Sergio Garcia. 9, Matt Every. 10, Zach Johnson.
Those are two very different lists, and I would argue that only one of them, the second one, reflects what's really going on out on Tour in 2014.
Let's dip into this week's Van Cynical Mailbag:
Van Cynical, Why does the biggest name on the leaderboard choke every week? Bubba, Rory, Adam Scott, Kuchar, Keegan Bradley and now Phil. Yes, Bubba and Kuchar later rebounded but they still choked in Phoenix and Houston. — Brian Rosenwald via Twitter
Don't forget San Antonio, too, for Kuchar. And as for his rebound at Hilton Head, he was looking at a playoff if he doesn't hole out from a bunker on 18. In any event, yes, the lesser-known guys are pounding the established guys this season, as I wrote in last week's SI Golf Plus — you know, the thing that actually still comes in the mail and is printed on paper inside your issue of SI? I raised the question of whether the young guys are that good or the established guys are not quite as good as advertised. I think it's a little of both, plus the equipment has equalized the game more and injected a bigger element of putting and luck of the bounce.
Van Cynical, Does it seem like we're seeing more blown saves and less closing this year? — Rick Fisher via Twitter
Same question, but a good one, and same answer, RickFish. The big-name guys we hold in such high regard because they're so good? Most of them are lucky to pick up two wins in three years. They're the best we have today, but they're not Tiger and they're not Phil. Maybe we should try to remember that. How many players out there under 40 are bound for the Hall of Fame? I'm not too sure.
Sickle, Is it more a testament to greatness or flukiness that no one has won back-to-back Players at the Stadium Course? — Josh LaBell via Twitter
It's one giant box of Frosted Flukes and I'm not joshing, Josh. The Stadium Course is basically a video game course come to life, capped by the iconic (and not necessarily in a good way) island-green 17th. You can't overpower the course with length, and one mistake in the wrong place can cost you a double or triple or worse. It's a penal course where the penalty often doesn't fit the crime.
Vans, Which "Big Bang Theory" character has the most golf potential? — BiggerBen via email
Sheldon looks like the human embodiment of the yips, so he's out. Leonard and Howard seem too unathletic. Raj comes from a country, India, that produces a fair number of decent international players on the Asian tour. But the obvious pick for potential is Penny. Put her in a tight workout leotard and get her to date a top-10 player in the world and bingo, she's on the cover of Golf Digest.
Van Cynical, With Rory McIlroy getting a backdoor top-10 finish last week, is he close or does he only like playing three rounds? — Brian Norman via Twitter
Well, Sharky, when he pounded that 378-yard (downwind) drive on the 16th hole Saturday, he looked close. Then he left his second shot short with a wedge and bogeyed. Is he close? I don't know, but I think he's getting closer. How's that for a weasel answer?