[Feature image – Getty images: Stan Badz]

Why the 2023 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass will look a lot different to 2022, when Cameron Smith one-putted eight of the final nine holes to win golf’s unofficial fifth Major. 

When Australia’s Cameron Smith tapped in for a bogey at TPC Sawgrass’ 18th hole on Monday, March 14, 2022, to win the elite Players Championship by one stroke, no-one could have predicted exactly what would transpire in professional golf during the coming 12 months. Smith and 32 other PGA Tour players left the US circuit to join LIV Golf. Yet this month, the PGA Tour returns to TPC Sawgrass for the 49th staging of the elite Players Championship. It will be the most unusual staging of the tournament in its near 50-year history.

The emergence of LIV Golf – the rival league run by Australian Greg Norman and funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – has turned professional golf on its head since holding its inaugural season of eight events between June and October last year.

 Getty Images: Icon Sportswire, Keyur Khamar, Richard Heathcote

The 2022 Players was the biggest victory of Queenslander Smith’s career at the time. That sentence in itself is a reminder that a lot has happened, even excluding LIV Golf, since last March. It was Smith’s second PGA Tour win of 2022 after his triumph at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. The mullet-wearing Brisbane golfer went on to claim golf’s holy grail: the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews in July. Smith rose to world No.2, then a little more than a month later announced his decision to leave the PGA Tour for LIV Golf. Once there, Smith won LIV’s Chicago event in his second start before ending the year by claiming one of two DP World Tour-co-sanctioned events in Australia, the Australian PGA Championship at Royal Queensland. Smith’s season was truly one for the ages and proved the Wantima Country Club boy remains a great player regardless of which circuit he plies his trade on.

But back to the Players Championship and LIV Golf. Smith and the next two players on the leaderboard from the 2022 Players – India’s Anirban Lahiri and England’s Paul Casey – also left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf. We say “left” because any PGA Tour member who signed with LIV was banned from the former. All up, 33 PGA Tour golfers departed for LIV. Aside from Florida-based Smith, who played and practised daily at TPC Sawgrass before the ban, notable omissions from this year’s TPC Sawgrass showcase will include former Players champions like Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Martin Kaymer, as well as multiple Major winners Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, Masters winners Patrick Reed, Charl Schwartzel and Bubba Watson, Major champions including 2020 US Open winner Bryson DeChambeau, 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and former US Open winner Graeme McDowell, plus names such as Australia’s Marc Leishman and Matt Jones, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Abraham Ancer, Talor Gooch, Jason Kokrak, Kevin Na, Joaquin Niemann and Harold Varner III. Not all would have been eligible for the 2023 Players, but it could be argued the tournament can no longer hold onto its status as the strongest field in golf.

 Getty Images: Icon Sportswire, Keyur Khamar, Richard Heathcote

For the Australian contingent, that leaves former world No.1s and Players champions Jason Day (2016) and Adam Scott (2004) headlining the pack this year. There’s also PGA Tour winners Lucas Herbert and Cam Davis confirmed in the field via finishing in the top 125 on the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup list last year. At the time of writing, Min Woo Lee was ranked 48th in the world and hoped to remain inside the top 50 until after the Honda Classic, when invitations to the Players are given for that category.

Smith was the only player inside the world’s top 10 at the time of writing who would not be competing at TPC Sawgrass. However, as pgatour.com’s Jim McCabe writes [see opposite], the winner may not necessarily come from that group, which is made up of Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa, Will Zalatoris, Justin Thomas and Matt Fitzpatrick. 

Top 10 troubles

The Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass has historically confounded top 10 talents. Want proof?

Stroll back to the glory days of four-time Major winner and one-time world No.1 Ernie Els. No matter when the Players Championship rolled around – it was March early in his career then later held in May – the big South African concedes he got an upset stomach.

“I haven’t treated this course very well, and it hasn’t treated me very well in the past,” Els once said. “This course has had its way with me.”

How rough was TPC Sawgrass on Els? He never won there, and he placed in the top 10 just four times in 24 starts. For the first 73 rounds of career there, his scoring average was 74.16. What accentuates this storyline, however, is the fact Els was not alone. The world’s most elite players, those who were fixtures inside the top 10 for the prime of their career, also struggled the Stadium course.

Consider the numbers: Els, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk and Retief Goosen combined to have 89 starts at the Players but produced zero wins. These lads won multiple Majors but when it came to the challenge of TPC Sawgrass, they were hand-tied.

Why? Els one year searched to explain it and settled on the fact that Florida winds and Pete Dye’s diabolical layout combined to torment him.

“[Links] are built for [high wind],” said Els, a two-time winner of the Open Championship. “You can play the ball on the ground and hit all kinds of different shots. This place, you’ve got water hazards all over the place (most notably, the island-green 17th) so you’ve got to put the ball in the air.”

As that group of elite talents moved on to the next phase of their competitive lives, the door opened for another generation of elite players. But guess what? They too are struggling to solve the quandary that is TPC Sawgrass. We’re talking eight of the current top 10 players in the world – Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa, Will Zalatoris, and Matt Fitzpatrick. Add up their Players numbers and you get 38 starts, just one win (McIlroy in 2019), a whopping 16 missed cuts and just eight top 10s.

We exempt world No.9 Justin Thomas because in just seven starts he’s got one win, another top 10 and hasn’t missed the cut. We toss in McIlroy because, while he does have a win, there are also five missed cuts in just 12 starts.

If you want to point to Spieth as the poster boy for being mystified by TPC Sawgrass (in eight starts he has missed five cuts), it would be only fair to flip the puzzle over and explain that the glory of TPC Sawgrass is that it is truly democratic. It is a course that favours no one style of play because all have won there:

• The power guys such as Tiger Woods, Davis Love III and Fred Couples, all of whom won.

• The young studs who were on the rise when they won, including Adam Scott (2004), Jason Day (2016) and Thomas, for instance.

• Players who relied on guile and precision, such as Hal Sutton, K.J. Choi, Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson.

• Short hitters such as Matt Kuchar, Tim Clark and Fred Funk.

Never did Els stay away thinking he couldn’t win. He knew he could, and he desperately wanted to beat the best on this stage. But he knew he had to be smart. TPC Sawgrass demands nothing short of playing every shot with a purpose.

“You’ve got to be very aggressive in your mindset and then play the safe shot,” Els said.

Woods had already won four Major championships by the age of 25 when he arrived at the Players Championship in 2001. The Masters was going to be in a few weeks and the media suggested Woods was only focused on winning a second green jacket.

To the sceptics, Woods had not won at TPC Sawgrass in four tries and they suggested he didn’t like the short doglegs and tight shots around trees. Woods reminded them that he had gotten better each year: T-31 in his 1997 debut, then T-35, T-10 and second.

“It’s a very interesting golf course, if you are not swinging it well,” he said.

Translation: if you are swinging it well, you can win. In 2001, in his fifth try, Woods won the Players. It was a big deal for him. Twenty-two years later, it remains a one of the biggest, and most challenging, events in golf. – Jim McCabe