March 17, 2022
Cameron Smith was the player at the Players Championship
Tough, unfair, challenging, unpredictable, fickle, interesting, and ultimately exciting were ways to describe the drama that took place at this year's Players Championship at Ponte Vedra Beach in northern Florida. For four and a half days this tournament didn't feel like a featured tour event that aspires to be called a major championship. Some players that played in the morning on Thursday didn't hit another ball until Saturday afternoon! Those that had to start play in the afternoon on Thursday, continued their round on Friday into Saturday, had to battle some of the fiercest weather conditions that you could imagine. By then they were punched and battered to near exhaustion. The winners had the luck of the draw to play in relatively benign conditions. But then again, no one said golf was supposed to be fair!
The leaderboard didn't take shape until the back nine the last day. Up to that time there was a revolving door of non-winners on the PGA Tour with no major champions contending. Finally the cream (that was left) started to rise to the top. At one point on the back nine there was a five way tie for the lead. Cameron Smith, Viktor Hovland, Anirban Lahiri, Paul Casey, and Keegan Bradley had emerged into the back nine with their sights set on capturing a prestigious title. All, except Lahiri, had a resume that would make them a worthy victor.
But back to the carnage that took place with torrential rains and winds up to 40 miles an hours along with bitter cold that greeted the afternoon wave of players on Thursday and lasted into Sunday. Great ball strikers were made to look like they didn't know what they were doing. Wind gusts blew balls straight up and traveled fifty yards less and thirty yards off line. Hitting the 17th green, which played at 148 yards, was a guessing game, where the contestants usually guessed wrong. If you like accomplished players to look silly, then this was the perfect storm. Brooks Koepka hits a wedge 150 yards. On Saturday, he hit a 7 iron firmly that travel 110 yards and thirty yards off line. All he could do was laugh as he missed the cut by seven shots. Players like Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Tony Finau and more just didn't have a chance and all missed playing the last two rounds.
Par on the TPC Sawgrass course plays to a par 72, but based on wind, cold and rain the true par was probably closer to 78. Justin Thomas shot a bogie free three under 69 in the second round, which was truly remarkable, because he played through the worst of the conditions. It probably was one of the best rounds of golf in his career. Even with that herculean effort there were 16 players ahead of him, all who played in the morning on Thursday. Fair or not there is always a degree of luck in any tournament. Unfortunately many were dealt a poor hand that only a few could overcome.
As the back nine unfolded, Smith surged ahead with birdies on 10, 11, and 12. Casey and Bradley hung close, but Smith kept the pressure up by making clutch par putts after errant tee shots. His nine iron on seventeen was a bit lucky. He missed his target by as much as 20 to 30 feet, but luckily found dry land and came to rest four feet from the hole. After making that birdie, he had a three shot lead and it was no surprise that he hit his tee shot well away from the water on 18 into the trees. But then he made it interesting by pitching into the water. His lead now was in jeopardy and he needed something special that seemingly only champions can produce. He hit one of the best wedge shots that I have seen in a pressure situation. A 57 yard sand wedge that was perfectly clipped off the grass that carried the false front and spun to a stop two feet below the cup. That was the shot of the tournament, when it mattered to most.
If the Players Championship is to be considered on par with the Masters, US Open, The (British) Open Championship, and the PGA Championship the winners need to be representative of the best in their era. The Players has an iconic golf course, a stellar field, and the largest payout of all the big tournaments. It has all the ingredients to be placed with the other championship, except the acclaim from the media and public. It is now forty years old and has produced winners like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Fred Couples, and other well-known stars as their champions. Cameron Smith isn't well known to the general public, but it is no surprise to the rest of his contemporaries that he could win this or one of the major championship before his career is over. It is too bad that the conditions were the major story this past week, but the outcome did produce a worthy champion. Adding Cameron Smith to the list of "Hall of Fame" and other great players to have won this championship will continue to add to The Players Championship résumé and ultimately lead to its' acceptance as a Major.