PGA Tour Confidential: The Players Championship

PGA Tour Confidential: The Players Championship

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K.J. Choi drained a short par putt on the first playoff hole for his eighth career PGA Tour victory.
Fred Vuich/SI

Every week of the 2011 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

CHOI GETS HIS BIGGEST WIN
Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: K.J. Choi wins the Players Championship. I’m sure everyone who’s spent time around Choi is happy he got the win, but it’s been a while since someone has used a win at the Players as a springboard to bigger and better things. Will Choi buck that trend at the upcoming majors?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I like K.J.’s resurgence. I don’t know if he’ll keep it going. I think he needs to get a bigger grip on his putter.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: K.J.’s had a lot of chances in the majors and never gotten it done. He may yet pick one off, but I don’t see him going on a sustained tear and altering the golf landscape.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: Wouldn’t be surprised if K.J. snatched a PGA or a green jacket. He’s played very well at Augusta the last two years.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: History, both Choi’s and that of Players winners, suggests not. Don’t forget, he’ll be 41 this week.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: Choi has been a regular on the first page of leaderboards for a while, so I’m not shocked that he won, but I don’t think that he’s about to become a juggernaut on the Tour. He was top 10 at Riviera, Bay Hill, Augusta and New Orleans. I see this win as another example of how many guys are capable of winning.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Choi has to putt better. Here and at the Masters he missed a ton of short putts. He probably should have won the Masters.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: K.J. is legit. He’s won eight times on tour now. He’s won at Jack’s place, Tiger’s place and now a Players. I see him reaching nine or 10 wins and, maybe, one major.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Choi has been in the hunt at more than one major. This victory could very well help him get over the top.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: His short putting will always make you worry about him, but he’s tailor-made for U.S. Open play.

Walker: If you look at the post-victory struggles of the last Players champions (Clark, Stenson, Garcia), winning the Players looks like winning the Best New Artist Grammy.

Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: Don’t forget Adam Scott!

Tell us what you think: Is Choi ready to break through at a major?

SUDDEN DEATH AT 17
Walker: Is 17 the best or worst hole in the world for a sudden-death playoff? Only choices are best or worst, and you have to explain your answer.

Gorant: Best for this event. It’s all about the tricked-up course and the heroic shot. Golf Roman Coliseum style: give the people what they want.

Evans: It’s the worst because the hole is a crap-shoot, and to put $1.7 million on that one hole is unfair to the tournament. You may as well be playing the lottery.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: I love the 17th. Great fun every year. Never disappoints. And even for guys like us, it’s a hoot to play.

Van Sickle: It’s totally in keeping with the miniature-golf-like nature of the course, as best seen by McDowell’s ball at 18 that bounced across the green into the water. The 17th is an equalizer. That kind of describes the whole Stadium Course layout. So why not start there? It’s great for TV, and that’s all anyone cares about anymore.

Shipnuck: Worst and best. It’s gimmicky and you hate to see a good tourney decided by a gust of wind, but it somehow works for this event. It’s certainly dramatic and probably golf’s best amphitheater.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Best. By far the most talked about hole in Tour history.

Van Sickle: Maybe it’s genius. We’ve had two playoffs start at 17. Neither has gone to a second hole. It’s decisive… so far.

Dusek: It’s a playoff, which to me implies a potentially fast-ending conclusion to a four-day event. I don’t understand why a playoff hole is better if it’s a par 4 or a par 5. Each player has a chance to tee it up and hit a good shot or a bad shot. The 17th at Sawgrass is just more dramatic than most other holes.

Bamberger: It’s a horrible hole for championship golf. Perfect for a sudden-death playoff, which is all about TV anyhow. It’s the best.

Walker: The best. I’ve never bought the argument against sudden-death overtimes, even in football. Choi and Toms had 72 holes to win the golf tournament. It had been on TV for the previous 12 hours. Give us an exciting finish and let us get on with our lives.

Wei: Best. Even with just a wedge on the tee, it’s intimidating visually and tough to judge, especially when the wind is swirling. Factor in the nerves of $1.7 million and the title on the line, and it brings out both the joy and tragedy of the sport.

Hack: It’s the best. Why? Because it’s the epitome of sudden death. It’s the perfect fit for this championship.

Godich: The best. The Tour wants drama. Can’t ask for a better setting than that.

Tell us what you think: Is the island-green 17th the best sudden-death hole in all of golf? If not, what’s your pick?

WHAT’S NEXT FOR TIGER?
Walker: Tiger Woods’s front-nine 42 and subsequent withdrawal Thursday was the most talked about story of the week, especially because we have no idea when he’ll play again. What’s Tiger’s biggest problem (his knee? his swing? his desire? his mental state?) and is there any reason to think he can get it fixed this year?

Shipnuck: His body is breaking down and has been for a while. Hard to groove a new swing and relocate an old putting stroke when you’re on the D.L.

Godich: Health is everything. If you’re body isn’t 100%, or at least close to it, it doesn’t matter how sound your mind is or how sharp your swing is or how solid your putting stroke is.

Reiterman: Who knows (or wants to know) what’s going on in his head, but it’s hard to be confident when your swing is under repair, and you don’t know if your leg is going to hold up.

Dusek: The last word you could use to describe Tiger Woods is forthcoming, so all we can do is guess about how serious his knee and Achilles’ tendon injuries might be. I doubt he really cares about winning a Players Championship, and his comment this week about peaking four times a year supports that. As far as fixing what’s wrong this year, I doubt it. His best performance was at the Masters where he played two (not four) solid rounds. I think he’s just too inconsistent, for whatever reasons, to contend right now.

Van Sickle: I thought it was a major red flag back in January when we learned that he’d gotten a shot for his Achilles problem. I wasn’t expecting it to blow up this big. I’m really at a loss to understand why Tiger played when he clearly wasn’t physically ready. Did he think he was and got fooled? Was he trying to do the right thing and support the Tour? I don’t know.

Herre: If the knee is a chronic condition, and it very well could be, Woods could be a candidate for a knee replacement. I’m aware of older golfers, like Jack Nicklaus, having hip replacements, but I can’t think of one who had a knee replacement in his/her prime. Kind of uncharted territory.

Wei: Lots of chatter in the locker room this week that Tiger’s “strained” Achilles is a bigger problem than his left knee.

Reiterman: Depending on the severity of his injured leg, he could still get his game back this year. U.S. Open, though, is not looking good.

Godich: When you play as limited a schedule as he does, you’ve got to get your competitive rounds in somewhere. No way he was playing Colonial or the Nelson. I assume he figured that he couldn’t afford to make the Memorial his only Open tune-up.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: As long as he remains driven to catch Jack and willing to put in the practice, health is Tiger’s biggest problem. And if we learn this week that his injury is worse than he let on (would anyone be surprised?), or that he’ll need a fifth knee surgery, all bets are off for any more major titles.

Van Sickle: I hate to make a bad prediction that may be proven wrong, especially since we don’t have many facts to go on, but he didn’t look like a guy who’s going to be ready to go at the U.S. Open.

Evans: Tiger’s biggest problem is between his ears.

Bamberger: Tiger’s biggest problem is that he has been publicly humiliated. The players don’t think he’s special anymore, and I doubt he thinks he’s so special, either.

Hack: You said it, Michael. I can’t imagine what makes sense in his world anymore. One thing he’s always had is his youth. And now, with his body betraying him, he doesn’t even have that anymore

Gorant: I’m keeping my seat on the TW bandwagon, but I admit the horizon might be a bit farther out than I originally thought. Might be time for Tiger to take a long break and get all of his stuff — head, body, swing — fixed and then come out firing in ’12.

Shipnuck: Shutting it down for the year makes sense, which is exactly why Tiger won’t do it. He’s way too stubborn to give in.

Wei: Here’s a list of all his injuries dating back to his Stanford days. And those are just the ones he’s disclosed to the public. That’s a lot of wear and tear for a person, no? I guess not if we’re comparing him to a football player, but people underestimate the amount of strain the golf swing puts on the body.

Evans: Tiger has a high maintenance golf swing, and maybe he’s hit too many balls and worked out too much.

Lipsey: Face the facts, Confidential folks: Tiger is H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

Walker: Tiger clearly wasn’t ready to play this week, especially on such a demanding course. So why did he show up?

Shipnuck: Payback for the Tour/Finchem supporting him throughout the scandal.

Evans: I think Tiger was trying to support the Players and the PGA Tour. It’s hard to believe, however, that he didn’t know before Thursday that he would have difficulty walking the golf course. Plus, Tiger has a responsibility to his sponsors, mostly Nike at this point, to play in the big events.

Wei: Agree with Farrell. Tiger’s heart was in the right place. Commissioner Tim Finchem has been adamant in denying the Tour pressured him.

Bamberger: I disagree. Tiger’s about Tiger. He was looking for reps.

Lipsey: Tiger’s a golfer. He was trying to play and win a tournament. Period. All these subplots are made up by outsiders like, um, us.

Van Sickle: Maybe Tiger was just trying to assess where his game and his body were for the U.S. Open. If so, I’m pretty sure he found out in a hurry.

Walker: I think Tiger was test-driving the game for the U.S. Open as well. If he was playing as a favor to the PGA Tour, it was one of his first.

Tell us what you think: What’s Tiger’s biggest obstacle right now: his health, swing or mental game? Can he win a major this year?

DEAR RORY AND LEE …
Walker: Complete the following sentence: Dear Rory and Lee, You should enter the Players Championship next year because ____.

Lipsey: . . .the Players can’t say it has the best field in golf when the best players on earth skip it.

Bamberger: . . .there are excellent tap rooms in Jacksonville Beach.

Shipnuck: . . .you look like jabronis for skipping it.

Gorant: . . . no one missed you this year. If it’s a battle of irrelevance, the Players will outlast you. Even if you’re only 22.

Dusek: . . . because, well, on second thought, do whatever the hell you want. We’d love to see you at Sawgrass, but the tournament was exciting and the talk about you both ended once the event began.

Evans: . . .you missed out on a chance to win a $1.7 million first prize.

Hack: . . .Tacolu’s bangin’ shrimp taco is not to be missed.

Herre: This doesn’t complete the sentence, but I doubt many American fans missed Westwood or McIlroy. They would have noticed if Tiger had made the Players look like the Colonial and skipped it.

Lipsey: In this world of massive appearance fees, with so many “big time” events and massive purses all over the world most weeks, the Players is no longer a must-play. Only majors have that status now.

Walker: McIlroy ended up tweeting about the Players so much I got the feeling he wished he was there.

Wei: As independent contractors, they can make their schedule as they please. At the end of the day, they lost the opportunity for a share of the $9.5 million purse.

Tell us what you think: Finish the sentence: Dear Rory and Lee …

THEY STILL HAVE GAME
Walker: On the 18th tee Sunday, the leaderboard read 40-year-old K.J. Choi (13 under), 44-year-old David Toms (12 under) and 46-year-old Paul Goydos (11 under). Is this just a symptom of the premium TPC Sawgrass places on accuracy and decision-making, or should we prepare for a lot more 40-something winners on the PGA Tour? With better equipment and fitness training, what is the upper age limit of a player’s peak now?

Bamberger: Fifty-two.

Gorant: I think it’s about the course. Doesn’t favor length and experience helps.

Herre: It was totally because of the course. You don’t need excessive length at Sawgrass. That’s one of the subtle distinctions of the Players.

Evans: Most weeks the young kids will win, but from time to time the forty-somethings like Phil Mickelson and David Toms and Jim Furyk will win some of the big tournaments.

Shipnuck: Definitely it’s the course. It’s a position track that largely negates power, which is good for the old guys.

Dusek: The course is so tricked out that you don’t need to crush it off the tee in order to contend. If you can hit fairways, you’ll avoid most of the train wrecks. So many guys drive the ball with impunity week after week that Sawgrass just doesn’t fit their style. Choi, Toms and Goydos are plenty straight.

Van Sickle: I fully expect a PGA Tour winner in his 50s soon, probably Vijay. As we saw with Tom Watson at Turnberry, it’s not out of the question that a 60-year-old could get a win eventually.

Tell us what you think: What’s the upper age limit a player can still contend on the PGA Tour?

G-MAC MAKES A MOVE, THEN FALTERS
Walker: For 53 holes, it looked like Graeme McDowell was in great position to get a win and end his recent slump. Then he made six bogeys and two doubles. Did G-Mac’s deal with the devil expire sometime after the Chevron World Challenge, or do you expect him to recover his form and keep his place among the game’s elite?

Reiterman: Not ready to knock him down the ladder yet, but man was it surprising to see him hit so many awful shots from the middle of the fairway. (Same goes for Watney and Glover.)

Evans: Graeme has a hit-or-miss golf swing, and it showed today. I know from personal experience that fast, timing-based swings only get faster under pressure.

Hack: Graeme’s more excited about his game post-Players than he was pre-Players. He says he just ran out of gas. I believe him.

Herre: Overall, McDowell is probably happy with his play at the Players. He’s just getting warmed up again. Bet he’s a factor in the next three majors.

Bamberger: The classic streaky player. With so many moving parts, how can he not be? I love it.

Dusek: There is no way that G-Mac could sustain the level of play he showed during the last half of 2010. He slumped but looked better for most of the Players. I think he’ll win tournaments again, but it’s going to be tough for anyone to match winning a U.S. Open, draining the winning putt at the Ryder Cup, and then facing down a charge from Tiger Woods on one of his “home courses.”

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: Graeme had to play 31 holes Sunday, as did Toms. I’d say they both ran out of gas. Choi had to play only eight holes from his third round before starting the fourth.

Van Sickle: McDowell can putt and hit clutch shots. With Kaymer faltering and Westwood playing minor-league events, McDowell has a very good chance of grabbing the No. 1 spot in the world rankings. Will be a surprise if he doesn’t get to No. 1 this year.

Wei: He’ll be fine. At this point last year, he hadn’t done much — heck, he wasn’t even on the radar in the U.S. — but things turned out okay. Last weekend in Orlando he and instructor Pete Cowen figured out a glitch in his swing. When the pressure’s on, sometimes you revert back to old habits.

Godich: I don’t think it helped that he had to play so many holes on Sunday. When you are tweaking your swing, extended play will most likely hurt. And admit it or not, I think the bad break on the 18th got in his head. He was looking at a three-shot lead.

Gorant: The guy missed the cut in three of his last four starts before this week. I’m a little surprised he was still in the SI top 10 last week.

Shipnuck: G-Mac is a quintessential feel player, so all the tweaking of his swing was bound to catch up to him. If he gets hot he can stay hot, so it’ll be fun to watch him in the majors.

Tell us what you think: Is McDowell still an elite player? What do you expect from him in the three remaining majors this year?

POULTER VS. MILLER
Walker: Ian Poulter and Johnny Miller resumed their on-again, off-again feud after Miller questioned the etiquette of Poulter’s sprint to the 18th tee to finish his round on Saturday. (Poulter was trying to beat darkness and avoid an early tee time.) Who’s side do you take on this issue, or is this just a case of the game not being big enough for these two massive egos?

Gorant: Thought it was a smart play by Poulter. Love the feud. We need a few more. Too bad O’Hair and Sabbo made up.

Hack: I’m just trying to picture Poulter trying that stunt at Augusta National. Billy Payne would tackle him. He played football, you know.

Morfit: I actually take Poulter’s side. He and Mickelson had talked about playing it that way earlier in the round, so it came as no surprise to Phil. I wonder, though, if Poulter would have done it in a major, or if he were in contention.

Bamberger: Poulter wins this one. Sprint and get in and eat brunch when the others are sleepwalking through their Sunday-morning Saturday rounds.

Herre: Poulter has rabbit ears. His temperament is probably holding him back as a player. That said, I think Miller was wrong in criticizing Poulter and those in his group. They just wanted to finish the round. That happens all the time. Why single someone out this time?

Godich: I’m with Poulter on this. Maybe Miller was ticked about having to be there for the 7:30 a.m. Sunday start.

Wei: I love Miller, but I’m with Poulter too. I realized what he was doing right away because players do that all the time, it’s just usually not on camera. But for someone so seemingly self-confident, Poulter is certainly very defensive.

Dusek: Miller is dead wrong on this one. At every tournament where there is a rain delay and play is forced to be suspended because of darkness, guys do stuff like this. The only difference in this case was that a big-name player did it while a microphone was in front of Johnny Miller.

Wei: Right, like at Doral. Zach Johnson and Geoff Ogilvy elected Sabbatini to putt out and run to the tee. Ogilvy called the move “sensible.” A few months back at the Northern Trust, a player teed off on No. 9 (started on No. 10) with a wedge because the group in front didn’t see him on the tee. Took one for the team!

Shipnuck: The whole thing was nonsense, which is why I enjoyed it. Poult’s gloating on Twitter about all the extra sleep he got was obnoxious and fun.

Van Sickle: Smart move by Poulter. He got to sleep in Sunday. Then he shot 73. So what’s the diff, Johnny?

Tell us what you think: Who was right, Poulter or Miller?

STATE OF THE TOUR
Walker: Northern Trust has re-upped as sponsor of the Northern Trust Open, the PGA Tour’s Los Angeles event, through 2016. The decision is noteworthy since Northern Trust took considerable heat for wining and dining clients at the tournament in 2009 after receiving TARP money. While the Tour is not out of the water yet, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem appears to have steered the Tour through a horrible recession while keeping a full schedule of sponsored events. Does he deserve more credit for this than he’s getting? What grade would you give him as commissioner?

Herre: Finchem deserves tons of credit for securing sponsors. Now let’s see how the next TV deal works out. If he can get some good growth there, he will have had a Hall of Fame career.

Hack: Maybe, but the first person he’d better thank in his Hall of Fame speech is Tiger Woods. In fact, Tim should just ask Tiger to be his presenter.

Dusek: Finchem has done a good job of protecting the gravy train so far, but with all due respect, I don’t feel we can give him a grade until the next TV deal is completed. To him, golf is a product used to help companies market to an audience that is predominantly affluent men. If he gets networks to pay as much or more than what they’ve been paying, he’ll deserve a very high grade. The lower the TV deal money goes, the lower his grade gets.

Godich: And the biggest challenge will be trying to sell the package as the networks try to discount the price based on Tiger’s seemingly diminished presence and impact.

Walker: B+. Keeping a full slate of sponsored events in this economy is an almost super-human feat, and his handling of the Tiger scandal was expert. However, the Tour’s image under Finchem is way too corporate and staid to compete with other sports. Also, not announcing Tour disciplinary action for serious infractions is indefensible.

Evans: Finchem has been an excellent commissioner. He’d get an A+ from me. But he did have the good fortune of having Tiger Woods and a great economy for much of his tenure. Since 2008 he’s had to deal with some corrections, like all business executives, but I think he’s been a good manager and a sensible leader through some difficult times.

Lipsey: A+. Look at the prize money, schedule and array of sponsors. The Tour is amazingly flush, especially considering Tiger’s been AWOL for much of two years and the world is still recovering from the economic collapse.

Tell us what you think: Does Finchem deserve more credit? What grade would you give him?

MICKELSON’S OUTLOOK
Walker: Phil the Thrill showed up at the Players, almost jarring his tee shot on 17 twice on Saturday (he missed by inches on the fly and then again after it spun back) and coming close again on Sunday. But overall Mickelson had another so-so performance in a big event. Should we be worried about Mickelson, or is he just planning to peak next month at Congressional for the U.S. Open?

Morfit: I can’t believe Phil didn’t get more out of this tournament, as good as he was hitting it. I actually think he’s close, and close out here is a razor’s edge. He could win again soon.

Bamberger: Why would I worry about Phil Mickelson? He’ll always have his Five Guys franchises.

Reiterman: Unlike his rival, Phil has two good knees. He’ll be fine for Congressional.

Herre: Have to agree with Cameron. Mickelson hit a bunch of great shots. He also got “Sawgrassed” a few times. Must be a super frustrating course for him. He’ll be fine by Congressional.

Evans: Mickelson loves to compete, but he’s not losing any sleep over his performance this week. He’ll be ready for the U.S. Open.

Godich: I still see Phil missing too many putts, putts that we’re accustomed to seeing him hole.

Hack: I agree. Phil is getting a little loose with the short putts. Wouldn’t be the first 40-year-old that happened to.

Dusek: Like Tiger, there are health issues and possibly motivational issues at play here. Money aside (I know Rick, it’s all about the money), what does winning another Players mean for Phil? The majors grab his attention and bring out the best in his game. He’ll be a factor at Congressional if his health is good.

Wei: He sure wasn’t feeling chatty this weekend. When he spends more than 30 minutes in the scoring area to decompress, it’s usually a sign that something’s wrong.

Tell us what you think: What do you expect from Mickelson at the U.S. Open next month?