Players 2020: The 5 most intriguing pairings from the opening rounds at TPC Sawgrass
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — When it comes to opening-round groupings on the PGA Tour, there are two disparate philosophies. On one hand, you have the Supergroup mentality, where tournament organizers cluster the field’s biggest names into just a few threesomes. The reasoning here is it allows fans to watch a number of their favorite players at the same time, on the same hole. The other approach is a bit more democratic—sprinkle the stars in groups with lesser-known players to avoid massive crowds on one hole and virtually no fans on the others.
The Players Championship is all-in on the Supergroups. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the PGA Tour’s signature event, its major (wink-wink), its opportunity to show off its biggest stars and its brightest up-and-comers.
The good thing for the tournament is that there are a lot of potential Supergroups that would be appealing—110 players in the field of 144 have won PGA Tour events before. And there are a number of marquee threesomes to choose from this week. Here, however, are five that have particularly captured our interest:
Rory McIlroy/Jon Rahm/Brooks Koepka
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It doesn’t get any more Super a Supergroup than having the top three players in the world together, all of whom come into this tournament with different narratives surrounding them. McIlroy (No. 1), who is the defending champion and the clear Vegas favorite, has been historically consistent of late, becoming the first player since Tiger Woods in 2006 to post seven straight top-five finishes on the PGA Tour. Still, despite that run of sustained success, there seems to be a bit of frustration in the golf world—though McIlroy himself seems unbothered, it should be noted—over his inability to close the deal on Sundays. Rahm (No. 2) will come in rested after two weeks off, his last start coming in Mexico, where he shot 61-67 over the weekend for a T-3. He held the 54-hole lead at TPC Sawgrass last year before a final-round 76 saw him tumble to T-12. And then there’s Koepka, who by his lofty standards, is playing … in his own words … “sh*t.” Since returning from knee surgery, he’s gone T-34/T-17/T-43/MC/T-47 and shot a career-worst 81 on Saturday at Bay Hill. There’s no one more competitive on Tour, so perhaps a grouping with the two players ranked ahead of him will jolt BK back into his 2018-’19 form.
Viktor Hovland/Collin Morikawa/Matthew Wolff
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These three will forever be linked. All three enjoyed decorated amateur careers; all three turned pro within a month of each other in June 2019; and all three have already won on Tour. Wolff got his name on the board first at the 3M Open in just his fourth start last June. Morikawa was next, winning the Barracuda Championship in July in his seventh PGA Tour appearance. Hovland found the winner’s circle at the Puerto Rico Open last month. We’d say this is a peak into golf’s future, but these three have fared so well already that it’s hard not to call them the present. They’re case studies in the modern young player, who leave college brimming with confidence that they can compete—and win—on Tour right away. If only fellow youngster Sungjae Im could have joined them for a four-ball …
Bryson DeChambeau/Sungjae Im/Gary Woodland
Two of the hottest players in golf, and the reigning U.S. Open champion, who isn’t playing too poorly, either. DeChambeau underwent a dramatic physical change this offseason, putting on north of 20 pounds and transforming from a solidly built young man to a beefcake. It’s hard to argue with the results, though—he’s posted three-straight top fives in three-straight huge events: the Genesis Invitational, the WGC-Mexico Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Im has emerged as maybe the game’s best player under 25, having won his first (of many) PGA Tour events at the Honda Classic and backing it up with a solo third at Bay Hill. The 21-year-old from South Korea leads the FedEx Cup standings. Woodland finished T-12 in Mexico and T-8 at the Honda, so he’s rounding into form just in time for the biggest events of the season.
Justin Thomas/Rickie Fowler/Jordan Spieth
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“And we’re the three best friends that anyone could have …” OK, these three have played dozens of rounds together and will feel comfortable-as-can-be with each other. At one point, all three ranked within the top 10 of the World Rankings, but Thomas is the only one this week inside the top 25. Spieth’s struggles have been discussed ad nauseum, his ball-striking still leaving a ton to be desired. But Fowler has been sliding down the rankings himself, failing to post a top-10 finish in a full-field event since the Open Championship. He is a past Players champion, however, and he did post a solid T-18 last week at Bay Hill, so perhaps he’s in for a bounce-back week. Thomas, on the other hand, has three wins since August but has missed two of his last four cuts, though the two cuts he made were a T-6 and a T-3.
Adam Scott/Justin Rose/Xander Schauffele
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Scott, who won this event as a 23-year-old way back in 2004, is back inside the world top 10 after winning back-to-back starts at the Australian PGA Championship and the Genesis Invitational. His fellow 39-year-old, Rose, entered this event last year ranked No. 2 in the world. He’s now No. 14 after missing three of his last five cuts—he missed three total in 47 starts across 2018 and 2019. He also showed up at Bay Hill with a bag full of TaylorMade clubs, a noteworthy development given he signed a lucrative deal with Honma at the start of 2019. Perhaps he’s searching for a return to comfort by reuniting with the sticks that saw him summit the World Rankings. Schauffele has been a bit under-the-radar recently, going T-16/T-23/T-14/T-24 over his last four starts. He has a runner-up finish at Sawgrass (2018) and seems to always be near the lead at huge events, so perhaps he gets a big W this week.