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Players 2022: Why Cameron Smith is a putting phenom and 17 other parting thoughts from TPC Sawgrass

March 15, 2022

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — The week that would not end finally did. Cameron Smith won a peculiar Players Championship with a roller coaster final round, birdieing his first four holes and getting up-and-down at the last for a clinching bogey. There is much to discuss. Here are 18 Parting Thoughts from TPC Sawgrass.

1: We start, as always, with the winner. The best-putter-in-the-world question could reasonably yield a number of responses: Patrick Reed, Denny McCarthy, Ian Poulter, Xander Schauffele, Matt Fitzpatrick, to name a few. There wasn’t a clear favorite—until Monday, when Cameron Smith capped off a hectic week with an all-time putting performance. The stats say he picked up 11.5 shots on the greens for the week, most in the field, and more than four in the final round alone. He one-putted 13 greens on Monday, including eight of his last nine. And it wasn’t just that he made the putts, it’s how he made them. Dead-center after dead-center.

Smith conveys a certain confidence over his putts. He expects to make them, and you expect him to make them. Remember when Tiger bricking a four-footer would’ve drawn audible gasps? It’s kinda like that. He never looks like he’s going to miss. It’s such a pure and simple action, not a short stroke but not a long one. And with all due respect to the mallets out there, there’s something about a blade that makes the whole thing look a little better. You half-wish he didn’t line his ball up with his sharpie line perpendicular to his target, rather than the standard line pointing directly at—it’s a trick to remind himself to hit up on the ball—simply because it robs us of those sensual slow-mo replays of that line tumbling end over end. After that tour de force, we’re ready to end the debate. Cameron Smith is the best putter on Earth.

2: The threesome of Viktor Hovland, Daniel Berger and Joel Dahmen gifted Golf Twitter with a high-profile rules controversy. By now you likely know the (agreed-upon) facts: Daniel Berger hit a ball into the water on the par-5 16th during Monday’s final round. Berger thought his ball crossed over the hazard line up by the green, which would mean he gets to drop his ball up by the green. His playing partners disagreed. What followed was a civil, but genuinely contentious conversation. Dahmen mostly tried to stay out of it, but Hovland and Berger both spoke as though the truth was on their side.

I didn’t see the shot live, so I don’t pretend to know where that ball crossed. Despite Berger’s assertion that he was 100 percent sure of its flight path, no one knows exactly where that ball should’ve been dropped. The system for situations like this one worked perfectly. In competition, the group is tasked with coming to a consensus on judgment calls. No one person has absolute discretion—it’s up to all three to come together on a compromise, even a begrudging one, which is what they wound up doing. Berger and Dahmen/Hovland essentially split the difference. This call to collaborate is a neat aspect of a much-maligned rulebook.

I do feel for Berger, who has actually played Hovland’s role quite a few times in his career, carefully observing his playing partners’ rulings to make sure everything’s kosher. He’s not one to get fast and loose with the rules, and there’s little chance he was trying to pull a fast one. It’s only natural for him to harbor some less-than-positive feelings for Hovland, who was on the left side of the fairway and didn’t have a great angle for viewing yet still spoke authoritatively. On the flip side, Hovland’s motivations were pure—protecting the field—his commitment toward that end is laudable. No one’s in the wrong. Not everything is black and white.

3: Anirban Lahiri auditioned for the role of Craig Perks and made it all the way to the cutting-room floor, one shot shy of a career-changing playoff and instead grabbing a career-changing solo second. He would’ve been a fitting champ on an unpredictable week, for even the sharpest touts can’t claim to have backed the Indian this week. He’d missed more cuts (seven) than he’d made (five) on the season, with a best finish of T-40 at the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba last October, and was ranked 322nd in the world (he jumped to 89th after the tournament). He had missed three weekends in a row before he made the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational but shot 76-82 on the weekend … which made his pre-tournament comments two days later rather eye-opening:

“The beauty about what we do,” Lahiri said Tuesday, “is that you're one week away from being a PGA tour winner. You're one week away from being at Augusta. You're one week away from having a two-, three-year exemption. You're one week away from you having a different kind of conversation with me.”

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Patrick Smith

How did he maintain that belief given the year he’s had? By working at it for 17 years. The 34-year-old has been meditating daily since he was 17 and once embarked on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. The idea was to help his golf, but he left a changed man. “When I came out, I was like, this is good for me,” he said Monday. “Golf is just something that I do. It kind of changed my perspective on life.” The objective is to become an impartial observer to your thoughts and emotions, to view them as waves in an ocean. They come, and then they go. The past matters little, and harboring negativity makes it impossible to live in the present moment. (It’s as if they created the practice with golf in mind.) Lahiri’s commitment to it helps explain his relentless optimism coming into the week. He’s trained his mind to be able to quickly move past setbacks like his double bogey on the eighth hole Monday. If you want to improve your golf, in addition to hitting balls and drilling short game, give meditation a try.

4: When you watch as much golf as we do, the challenge is to find small nuggets that spark joy. This week, that role was played by the narrow wooden planks that separate the TPC Sawgrass’ green surrounds from its water hazards. They’re a Pete Dye staple, providing the clean lines that help TPC Sawgrass photograph so well.

But they serve another, more sinister function: that of the rude goodbye. When balls trickle toward the drink, they tend to take one last little hop before diving into the abyss. It’s as if it’s saying: Muahaha! Screw you, I’m out! It’s most painful on the island-green 17th. A player will see his ball land on the putting surface. It will then pull back into the rough, where the ball is partially obscured by the longer grass. You desperately want it to stay obscured, because if you see the bottom of that white sphere again, it’s because it took that nefarious little hop, and it’s time for you to grab another.

5: On the topic of granular observations: Each player picks the ball out of the hole differently. Abraham Ancer exclusively uses his left hand. Brooks Koepka dives toward the hole with purpose. Paul Casey, on the contrary, bends his knees more than anyone on tour. It’s a gentle motion, almost a little curtsy. It’s how the British aristocracy would pick a ball up out of the hole. Or maybe he’s just trying to protect that 44-year-old back.

6: Members of the grounds crew arrive at the golf course before the sun even considers rising and leave well after the locker room clears. They toil at an often thankless job, away from the TV cameras, an afterthought for most. Not this week. Granted, some of the work was done in the lead-up—top-dressing the fairways and greens with sand, for example—but TPC Sawgrass didn’t absorb all that water on its own. For the agronomists to get this course dry enough to play the ball down for the final two rounds, after they received three-plus inches of rain in a 36-hour period, is nothing short of Herculean. A major, major hat tip.

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Icon Sportswire

7: Having a front-row seat to all the gorgeous swings, crispy fairways and pool-table greens on tour generally has the same effect: stirring a man’s innate desire to play golf. Saturday afternoon, on the contrary, was one of those days where the media center felt like a warm hug. I did, however, venture outside to watch players prepare to play a Pete Dye golf course, with ubiquitous water, in a gale-force wind. The driving range was about what you’d expect—punch shot after stinger after punch shot. As they trudged toward the practice tee, knowing the gauntlet ahead, Jason Day offered some cheeky words of encouragement: “Enjoy it, mate!” Jason Kokrak smiled and sighed at the same time. “Yep, you too man.”

Over by the putting green, Max Homa began his pre-round routine with some dead-straight four-footers. On normal afternoons, these fall dead center. On Saturday afternoon, they blew off course and missed right. He looked up at his caddie, Joe Greiner, and gave the same look you give to your buds when you’re about to tee off in a 40-mph wind. Are we really about to do this? It’s part of golf’s unique charm—underneath the 65s and the millions lie a golfer who goes through the same emotions you do.

8: From the relatability file … Joel Dahmen was so cold on Sunday morning that he wore sweatpants under his golf pants. Not long johns, not the thermals you might wear skiing—just full-on, thick sweatpants. He called it the “coldest I’ve ever been on a golf course,” and that’s coming from a Pacific Northwesterner. Francesco Molinari, who has followed this game all around the globe, called it “freezing.” Viktor Hovland’s got Viking in his bloodline, and he wore mittens all day. Take that, Twitter Weather Hardos.

9: Jon Rahm’s reign as World No. 1 was under threat from four different players this week. And while he did keep it, his grasp seems more tenuous than ever, for some of his late ’21/early ’22 shine has worn off. His T-55 this week, including a quintuple-bogey 9 and a 77 on Sunday, was his third straight finish of T-17 or worse. High standards, sure, but he’s created them for himself with his play. He continues to look out of sorts with the putter and still has not won a tournament, at least not officially, since the 2021 U.S. Open. Hovland and Morikawa are breathing down his neck.

10: One more on Rahm. I saw him fan his tee shot right on the 12th hole on Sunday and began talking to it.

“Please … please … miss the bush, please.”

For whatever reason, I’d never noticed that Rahm talks to his ball in English, and I found this fascinating. When did he make that transition? College? When he turned pro? Does he think in English? Dream?

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Jared C. Tilton

11: Viktor Hovland had the best ball-striking week of his life, gaining more than 13 shots on his competitors from tee to green. And, once again, his chipping let him down. It’s not often a player can be as good as Hovland is with such a glaring weakness in their game. In a perverse way, nothing illustrates his generational ball-striking prowess more than being as consistent as he is despite a legitimate deficiency. This has been an issue for years, and Hovland knows this. He spoke honestly about his Achilles heel after Monday’s round.

“I frankly don't practice it enough. … I've had weeks where I chip it great, and then I have confidence throughout the week, and I chip it awesome. But then other weeks if I haven't hit many chip shots the whole week and then, suddenly, I have one that's a little awkward, I think I have a tendency of maybe guiding it a little too much.”

A pretty stunning admission, that he doesn’t practice it enough, but an encouraging one. He knows he needs to get serious about this and he will. Perhaps this week finally convinced him that now’s that time.

12: The Players Championship is not a major, at least not yet, but the PGA Tour has done everything in its power to make the tournament feel big. The most salient example of this is the $20 million purse and $3.6 million first prize, but it’s more than that. There’s no pro-am on Wednesday. There’s no brand attached to the tournament name. There’s a permanent media center, and they run all the big names through it for press conferences on Tuesday, just like Augusta. There are no media allowed on the driving range as there is in every non-major. Players seem to give the week the “major” treatment, building their schedules around it, willing to splurge a bit more to bring the family along, and carrying themselves with an air of seriousness you don’t see week in and week out.

“You can tell when you step out here—guys are showing up a lot more on a Monday, guys are showing up a lot earlier on a Tuesday,” Collin Morikawa said. “The past couple years when you show up, you can feel the weight of what the Players means to everyone, and I think that's the coolest thing. I remember showing up to Harding Park [at the 2020 PGA Championship], that was my second major, and there were no fans, and you could still tell that people were walking on ice, knowing that this is what this week represents. And that's the same thing you feel this week—you just see more guys slowly taking their deep breaths because they understand what The Players means.”

Yes, it’s contrived, but it’s also working.

13: Another chance in a huge event for Paul Casey, and another near-miss. He did not blow this by any measure; he simply got leapfrogged by a Sunday 66. It was the second straight time that Casey entered the final round of a huge event in contention, played well, and lost. (He was two back of the lead heading into Sunday at the 2020 PGA Championship, shot 66 and lost by two). As he discovered his lie on the 16th hole on Monday—a perfect drive that ended up in someone else’s pitch mark, forcing a layup from 210 yards—he must’ve felt the golfing gods have conspired against him. He subscribes to that type of thinking

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Patrick Smith

“I believe in the golfing gods and karma,” he said Sunday. Either they’re repaying him for a sin we’re not aware of, or they owe him majorly in the future.

14: Surely there were a few casual golf fans who on Monday, between filling out their brackets and processing the Tom Brady news, flipped on the Players Championship and immediately wondered: Where are all the stars? Collin Morikawa, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau all missed the cut. Cantlay and Finau did so from the friendly half of a historically lopsided draw, so they’ve got no one to blame but themselves. But the other guys can and will chalk this up to bad luck. The early-late wave played their first rounds in dome-like conditions and avoided the nightmarish Saturday. The late-early wave, obviously, did not.

No one enjoys missing a cut, especially in a tournament with a $20 million purse, but this MC Hammer’s a bit easier to swallow than others. Externalizing failure is a pre-requisite for playing professional golf. The reason these guys blame the course, or the caddie, or a non-existent spike mark, is to preserve their self-assuredness. I’m still the man, I just got unlucky. It’s usually a crock of crap. This week, their rationalizations carried some validity.

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Patrick Smith

15: The funniest line of the week came courtesy of a woman volunteering as a marshal right of the 18th fairway. Brooks Koepka, who shot a billion, had missed his tee shot a solid 50 yards right, and she was fighting the noble fight of trying to clear fans out so he could get back in play. A rather rude man, his voice dripping in condescension, tried to belittle her.

“Don’t you realize he’s going to hit it way over our heads?”

“Sir, if he had that much control, he wouldn’t be over there in the trees!”

His punch-out did not escape the woods.

16: Sort of strange to see the “Every Shot Live” feature quietly fade into the abyss. It had been a staple of Players week for two years, but it’s apparently a casualty of PGA Tour Live’s shift from NBC Sports to ESPN. Subscribers to ESPN+ could watch every group in the mornings, but that cut out once the TV broadcast window began. Here’s to hoping it’s back next year. Something tells us it might be.

17: Not every fantastic round results in a trophy, or even a top 10. Justin Thomas got the wrong end of the draw and was swimming upstream through the first two rounds. Despite the strongest winds of the week, Thomas somehow carved his way to a bogey-free 69 on Friday afternoon. JT’s a bit old school in how much he likes to vary shapes and trajectories, and he flashed the full arsenal—the low cut, the high draw, the high cut, the low draw, the rope-hook driver, the knockdown fairway wood, the low spinner, the back-foot peeler. How impressive was it?

“JT,” Harry Higgs wrote on Twitter, “Who did you pay off this morning to not make a bogey?? There are no words to describe how insanely good that is.”

And it wasn’t even the best round of the day! That went to Bubba Watson, who also dodged bogeys but managed one more birdie than Mr. Thomas. We hereby award both these bogey-free feats with Best Supporting Round.

18: It came from a vocal minority—essentially one person, Brandel Chamblee—so we’re venturing into strawman argument territory here. That being said, I simply do not understand the argument for redesigning the island-green 17th hole. Forget its symbolic importance to this course and this tournament; Chamblee’s argument centered around the green being too small and not having a bailout area for extremely windy days. On Saturday afternoon, he called for play to be halted because the 17th had become “unplayable.”

Golfers, especially professional ones—remember, Brandel is a former tour player—harbor a visceral aversion to chaos. Why does there have to be a bailout? Why can’t a poor shot be harshly punished? Consider this from Paul Casey, speaking about the setup at the prior week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Keep in mind that he shot 83 that Sunday.

“If you're going to have greens as firm and fast, which I've got no issue with it, then have no rough. If you're going to have rough, then it needs to be a softer green.”

Why? Why does it need to be a softer green? He’s implying that hitting that firm a green, from that juicy of rough, is virtually impossible. Yes … and? If the objective is to identify the best golfer on a certain week, aren’t these the litmus tests we’re looking for: Can you hit fairways? Can you flight the ball down?. Exactly what we should be after? On Saturday at Sawgrass, 75 percent of the players who kept their ball’s apex below 70 feet on the 17th hole hit the green. If you were able to flight it, you were rewarded. And if you weren’t, you don’t deserve a bailout.

Yes, some guys got unlucky with wind either gusting or calming shortly before impact. It happens in this game. But the gale force we saw Saturday is highly unusual. Calling for a change after an aberrational afternoon is like clamoring to extend Wrigley Field because wind carried a few pop-flies out one game. The binary nature of the 17th—wet or dry—has crossover appeal to non-golf fans who don’t appreciate the nuance of your run-of-the-mill par 3. It looms in the psyche of players in contention for hours and stands as a treacherous final obstacle en route to the richest payday in golf. No bailout isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. The hole isn’t a liability; it’s an asset.