Players 2021: Justin Thomas' MasterClass in ball-striking and 17 other parting thoughts from TPC Sawgrass
Kevin C. Cox
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Well, that was something, wasn’t it?
The Players Championship continues to grow in stature each year, and this year’s event shows why: a phenomenal host venue, wall-to-wall coverage, the richest purse on the PGA Tour, a frenetic weekend and a worthy winner.
So let’s dive in. Here are 18 parting thoughts from TPC Sawgrass.
1. We start, as always, with the winner. That was nothing short of a ball-striking MasterClass from Justin Thomas. Midway through Thomas’ final-round 68, NBC on-course commentator Jim “Bones” Mackay called JT’s precision “Hogan-esque.” Perhaps a bit much, but Bones has been around the tour for a while now and has seen many of the greats up close and in person. He’s not going to go there just to go there. To shoot 132 on the weekend at TPC Sawgrass the way JT did is about as good as golf gets.
With that in mind, it’s a bit curious that Thomas has spent just five weeks of his career at World No. 1. Consider this—since the beginning of 2017, here’s how Thomas and the current No. 1, Dustin Johnson, stack up:
12 PGA Tour wins
2 World Golf Championships
1 FedEx Cup
12 PGA Tour wins
3 World Golf Championships
1 FedEx Cup
That’s … pretty much even. Is it possible Thomas, No. 2 on the OWGR after Sunday’s triumph, is underrated? It depends on how much you value wins and how much you value how a guy does when he doesn’t win. What we know is this: Thomas is 27 years old and has 14 tour victories, which is two-thirds of Johnson’s career total while being nine years DJ’s junior. The guy simply knows how to win, and he tends to capitalize when he’s in contention—it’s worth noting Thomas has just six runner-up finishes on tour. When he smells blood, he attacks.
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2. A little more on Thomas. He really does seem to have a lot of Stephen Curry in him. That’s to say he gets hot fast. Thomas was cruising along under the radar over the first two days, posting a pair of 71s to make the cut but leaving himself seven back of the lead heading into the weekend. (It’s worth noting, the largest 36-hole deficit ever overcome by a Players winner was seven shots.)
And then, with little warning, Thomas caught fire, making seven birdies and a tap-in eagle on Saturday to shoot a 64, the low round of the week, and get into the penultimate pairing on Sunday. And then it happened again during the final round. He played his first eight holes in one over only to go nuclear, posting birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie to race to the top of the board and stay there.
No one makes birdies in bunches like JT—he leads the tour in them—and when he accesses that electric top-level gear he has, it’s must-see stuff. No pin is safe.
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3. Lee Westwood now has back-to-back runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour. He joked this week that his new first name is “47-year-old,” but we only talk about things like that when there’s something to talk about. What Westwood accomplished these last two weeks, against world-class fields, is remarkable—as is the $2.66 million he’s won. (On today’s PGA Tour, the big events pay more than $1 million for second.)
What’s more, Westwood said he was heading up to play Augusta National with his son Sam on Monday. His son will caddie for him in the Masters next month, which is possible because Westwood simply doesn’t need a pro caddie at this stage in his career. There’s nothing a caddie is going to tell him that’s going to make a difference, and today’s yardage books are so detailed and effective that he’s got all the information he needs right there. So he’ll sub-out fianceé Helen Storey and sub in Sam. What a life this man is living.
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4. Lee Westwood vs. Bryson DeChambeau is the rivalry that no one saw coming. The two beefcakes—I mean that as a compliment—dueled in the final round of Bay Hill two weeks ago, where they put on a hugely entertaining show with DeChambeau coming out ahead by one. They had so much fun that day, they decided they’d run it back at TPC Sawgrass.
Kevin C. Cox
It was the first time the same two golfers had played in the final pairing of back-to-back PGA Tour events since the 2006 Tour Championship and 2007 Tournament of Champions—but those events were nine weeks apart, so that doesn’t really count. It’s so rare for a player to follow up a win by contending again the following week; it’s almost unheard of for the same two guys to do it.
Less than two years ago, DeChambeau was just a slightly-longer-than-average player and Westwood looked like his time as a elite-level golfer was ending as he ranked No. 77 in the world. The unpredictability of players’ career arcs is one of the many beautiful things about this game. Who’s to say—maybe the 2023 Florida Swing will turn into the Daniel Berger vs. Henrik Stenson show. Anything can happen in golf.
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5. So long as Tiger Woods remains sidelined, Bryson DeChambeau is the biggest star in the sport. Whether you like him or not, he just is. That’s not to say he’s the best player in the world, but without question he’s the biggest draw. Having been at three of the last four events DeChambeau has played, I can say from experience that it’s not even close. The crowds gather to watch him on the driving range and they follow him to the course. He is a pied piper.
The reason is simple: Bryson has crossover appeal while none of the other guys in the top 10 can really say that. My roommate, who does not watch golf, knows who Bryson is and thinks what he’s doing is really cool. My roommate enjoys watching a 250-pound guy swing out of his shoes, grunt after impact and throw both hands in the air. He knows that no other golfer does that, and different is cool. My roommate could not care less about another guy, straight out of a country club, plotting his way around a golf course and hitting nice iron shots from the middle of the fairway.
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6. Bryson’s driving dominates the headlines, and rightfully so. He re-made his body in a stunningly short period and subsequently became the longest player on the PGA Tour, bar none. And yet the part of his game that I find myself marveling at is his putting.
His technique, like everything about him, is unusual. He uses a 43-inch face-balanced putter with six degrees of loft—that’s way more loft than the average putter on tour—pins it to his left forearm, stands super close to the ball, locks his elbows and tries to take the club straight back and straight through, as opposed to following a small arc like most pros do. He does it his way, and he does it damn well. DeChambeau finished 10th on tour in strokes gained/putting last year and is on track to finish in that same range this season. Anecdotally, his three- to five-footers seem to always go in dead-center. He’s nowhere close to being one-dimensional.
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7. You simply can’t write anything Players Championship-related without touching on the “Is it a major?” conversation, trite as it may be. The Players is not a major in the same way an apple is not an orange. It’s simply not. But I do know this: It feels major. Small ‘m.’ It draws the strongest field in golf. It’s played on the same vivacious golf course every year. The return to March has added a jolt of energy, making it the first truly can’t-miss tournament of the year. Anyone who follows golf is absolutely glued to the action. And the players themselves care a ton. Sure, part of that is due to the $15 million purse and $2.7 million grand prize. But whatever the motivation, you can’t watch guys fist-pumping after holing a putt to make the cut on the number and tell me this isn’t a hugely important tournament.
Some will argue this feeling has risen because the tour and the TV networks have spent so much money convincing us it is big. Lest us forget, though, that the four majors are not some canon dictated by a higher power; they were determined, as the legend goes, by sportswriters in the 1960s, with a little nugget from Arnold Palmer. To suggest we resist the Players because it is owned by the PGA Tour and marketed to death is to sit on a high horse and ignore history. Just because the continued elevation of this event feels a bit contrived doesn’t make it any less real.
Moving forward, perhaps we can resist the constant urge to compare anything and everything, and simply enjoy the Players for what it is: an awesome, fun, super-important tournament that is absolutely relevant when discussing a player’s résumé and standing in the game. Nothing more, nothing less.
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8. A big reason for the Players being awesome is TPC Sawgrass. It’s knocked in some social-media circles as an unnatural test and a bad influence on other golf courses. Bollocks! It’s fantastic. Designed to torment the world’s best players and throttle the longest hitters, it accomplishes exactly that. Not every golf course has to be “playable” for the 15-handicap; especially one that has “TPC” and “Stadium Course” literally in its name. People don’t come to TPC Sawgrass, which was in immaculate condition this past week, to shoot their best score ever. They come to get kicked in the teeth. And that’s OK!
What makes it a great test is that it throws hazard after hazard at you, but rewards the player bold enough to play closer to those hazards, as it opens up angles to the greens (See Justin Thomas, 18th hole). And it does a terrific job of identifying who is playing best that week; not who’s the best player in the world, but who has all facets of his game clicking for those four days.
Plus, the finish is everything you can ask for from a final three-hole stretch: a reachable par 5, where eagles and double bogeys are possible; one of golf’s most famous par 3s; and a beefy, no-excuses par 4 that forces you to hit a nervy shot under enormous pressure. Pete Dye’s masterpiece shined this week.
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9. A favorite pastime of Golf Twitter is complaining about television coverage. The usual gripes: too many commercials, stale commentary, unimaginative camera angles. It was refreshing, then, to see virtually everyone on social media unified in the belief that Golf Channel/NBC’s coverage this week was fantastic.
The PGA Tour pulls out all the stops for the Players, including collaborating with sponsors to provide more golf and less commercials. And when the golf was on, there seemed to be a commitment to showing more golf shots. The commentators also showed restraint in not talking over player-caddie conversations, which are often quite compelling. And the broadcast went a step further with the technology. Cutting-edge graphics showed wind patterns, there were new camera angles split-screened with TopTracer and, my personal favorite, new wide-angle drone shots perfectly showed the scale and design features of TPC Sawgrass.
All around, a solid 9.5 out of 10.
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10. The “Every Shot Live” coverage cannot have been a good thing for overall workplace productivity, but for those of us who work in golf and obsess over the play of 20-odd tour pros each week, it was a godsend. Augusta National debuted a similar feature in 2019, and the PGA Tour was hyped to roll it out at the 2020 Players, only for COVID to laugh in the face of those things called plans.
One unintended benefit of the group-by-group coverage was the lack of commentary. That’s not a knock on the Golf Channel/NBC crew, but the silence and relative lack of fans made for some incredible ambient noise. The most entertaining bit came on Saturday, when Jordan Spieth accidentally hit into Rory Sabbatini’s group. The mic on the tee caught Spieth saying, “Is that Sabbatini? God—I couldn’t have picked a worse player to hit into.” All credit to Spieth for not blaming the tour or the mics after the round; he actually doubled down on the comment to our Chris Powers.
There is, of course, a larger discussion to be had here: the trade-off between access and privacy. If it were up to the fans, every single player would be mic’d up every single round. They love hearing tour gossip and thought processes and random chatter. But the tour players don’t want to feel like they’re always being listened to, because then they can’t say what they want to. In no other sport are players mic’d in real time—there’s always some producer somewhere deciding what’s fit for air and what isn’t. And that Spieth-Sabbatini incident wasn’t the only one to slip through the “Every Shot Live” cracks this week. Without question, showing every group live is the future of golf coverage; how they handle the volume on that coverage will be fascinating to see.
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11. We hate speculating on injuries. But having watched virtually all of Kevin Na’s opening round on Thursday—the one that ended with a quintuple-bogey 8 on 17, and then a prompt WD after the round—we can say for certain there were absolutely no outward signs of the back injury he claimed to suffer from after pulling out. His playing partner, Matthew Fitzpatrtick, also didn’t seem too pleased with Na’s early exit in an interview with Golf Channel.
The thing about these dubious withdrawals is they’re not a victimless crime. On Friday, Fitzpatrick and Carlos Ortiz were forced to play as a twosome. The Players is already one of the slowest events of the year—TPC Sawgrass demands every ounce of your attention, and the ubiquitous water always slows things down. Having to play with one less golfer than the rest of the field made for a torturously slow round. Fitzpatrick and Ortiz waited on the 17th tee for more than eight minutes Friday afternoon. That shot is stressful enough, without having to sit on the tee and ruminate on it for eight minutes.
Tour officials aren’t likely to do anything about this, since they can’t prove someone isn’t injured and they need to accept the player’s word in such circumstances (remember, it’s still a gentlemen’s game). But Na knows exactly what happened, and so does everyone else in the field—and as a 37-year-old veteran, it was hugely disappointing to see.
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12. This wasn’t Jordan Spieth’s week—he finished T-48, mostly because he played his last four holes in four over—but never have we been more sure that the slump is a thing of the past. Particularly impressive was his driving, which for the prior three years had been abysmal. He actually led the field in strokes gained/off the tee on Thursday and finished 28th in that stat over four days, which for him is huge progress. A big reason why: He’s developed a consistent go-to fairway-finder: a low, burning cut. And it comes off the club face in the low-to-mid 170s ball speed, so it’s not short, either.
That shot is going to pay huge dividends for him moving forward, and it’s only a matter of time until he gets back in the winner’s circle. (There’s a little tournament in Georgia next month that he seems to have a soft spot for.) Don’t bet against him making the Ryder Cup team this fall, either.
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13. We all appreciate Tiger Woods’ greatness. We all know he made a really long putt at the Players 20 years ago. We all know what hole that putt came on. We even know what the announcer said as that putt approached the hole.
Catch my drift? I’m not sure a highlight clip has been played more in the history of organized sports. Even the players themselves are sick of seeing it on every TV screen, all the time, during Players week.
“I think there’s a few,” Dustin Johnson said when asked about his memories of watching the Players growing up. “Obviously, well Tiger's putt—but they play it like every five seconds, so, you know.”
He was then told it was playing on TV in that very moment.
“Yeah, I’m sure. Just wait a minute, it will be on again.”
DJ speaks for all of us. Let’s hope the constant airing was a result of this being the 20-year anniversary, because as one of my colleagues texted me this week: “They’ve shown the putt so much, I’m actively rooting for it to miss.”
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14. At the risk of sounding even more like a cantankerous old man … the Jimmy Fallon bit where he gets players to sneak lines into their pre-tournament press conferences has got to stop. Sure, it was funny at first, but we all know it’s coming now, and it’s cringe. Here’s what they were this week:
Justin Thomas: “I’m like an iPod Nano; I just keep shuffling.”
Jon Rahm: “Simple truth is we have the meat.”
Collin Morikawa: “Khakis with the pleats and feet in the cleats keep butts in their seats.”
Slightly cringe. Again, it was a funny at the beginning. But the No. 1 rule of joke-telling is to not beat it to death with repetition. Time to let this one fade into the good night.
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15. Doug Ghim was the story no one saw coming this week, me included. I ranked the top 100 players in the field ahead of the tournament and didn’t even consider including Ghim. He came in as the No. 257 in the OWGR, and he had just one top-10 in the last 18 months, so of course he promptly finds his way into the second-to-last group with Thomas on Sunday in the biggest event of the year to date.
After his round on Saturday, a reporter kept talking and talking about the Ryder Cup—which, of course, is six months away and a team competition, so not exactly apples-to-apples, to put it kindly—and while we can’t be sure, the question seemed to be something like: Will Sunday have a Ryder Cup feel, given the big-name Americans and Europeans at the top of the leader board?
Ghim gave a refreshingly self-aware answer. It was delicious: “Yeah, I don’t know if you noticed, I’m like 257th in the world.”
A Sunday 78 dropped him to T-29 but did move him up to No. 238 in the OWGR. Here’s hoping we see more of Ghim down the road.
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16. Tyrrell Hatton came into this week ranked No. 7 in the world. He’s a fantastic player, perhaps the finest on the European Tour over the last 12 months, and he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational last year, too, so there’s no “he-can’t-win-in-America” talk going on here. But he’s been something of the anti-Brooks Koepka recently.
Hatton has missed just four cuts in his last 29 starts worldwide. Those trunk-slams have come in these four events:
In other words, the four biggest he’s played in that span. Hatton is too good a player to keep laying in egg an the biggest events. Is this evidence of an issue with his preparation? Does he psych himself out? Does his game not translate to demanding layouts? Is it simply a statistical fluke? Whatever the reason, it’s a curious stat indeed.
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17. From the “every stroke counts” department, the latest case study: Victor Perez. The 28-year-old Frenchman had to come back on Saturday morning to finish his second round after darkness stopped play Friday night. After bogeying the 16th hole, he made a par on the 17th, then needed a birdie on the 18th to get back to even par and make the cut. He gave himself a chance when he hit his approach to 24 feet from the hole, just off the green.
Sure enough, Perez rolled it in. He then played the last two rounds in 69-67 (with a bogey on the 18th Sunday) to finish T-9. He earned $339,375 for the effort not to mention a host of Ryder Cup points that should help him make the European team later this year. It’s a lesson to everyone out there: This is why you grind!
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18. Going to end on something that’s not exactly tournament-related, but Ponte Vedra Beach-related. There’s a new spot just a mile or so from TPC Sawgrass called The Yards. Formerly a public course in disrepair, the property was acquired by a wealthy businessman and converted into a nine-hole, par-35 course in mint condition. But there’s also a couple par-3 loops in the back, and the entire place feels like a hangout spot just as much as a golf course. You can play nine holes, 12 holes, 15 holes—however many holes you like.
Golf needs way more of this. With busy schedules and diminishing attention spans, so many people simply can’t step away to play 18 holes for four-plus hours. But two hours, for a quick nine-hole loop? Or even an hour in the late afternoon, when you take four clubs and a couple beers out with your buddies to play some par 3s? That’s a much easier sell, and a vision for how golf can modernize.
Look, I love the grind of an 18-hole round, and I’m sure plenty of you do, too. You’re reading a 3,000-plus-word piece on the Players Championship, so odds are you’re a golf nut. But for so many, golf is merely an excuse to spend time outside with your buddies. Courses need to start reflecting that desire, and The Yards is a model.