- Did TPC Sawgrass play too easy? How high will Tiger ascend in the world rankings? What's wrong with Rory McIlroy? Is Webb Simpson here to stay?
Every week, SI.com's Daniel Rapaport will be answering four of the biggest questions from the week in golf. To submit questions for the following week's column, simply tweet at @Daniel_Rapaport or @SI_Golf.
Webb Simpson ran away with the Players, but both the number of players to reach double-digits under par (22) and the under-par cut were surprising. For a tournament that's thought of as the "fifth major," shouldn't the golf course play a little more major-esque?
I asked a few players this exact question at Sawgrass. Were they surprised by how friendly the setup was? The response was mixed; a few guys (Henrik Stenson being the most outspoken) said they'd like to see the course play firmer and faster, but other players—Dustin Johnson among them—pointed out that other than Simpson, the course played roughly the same in terms of difficulty as in past years.
The numbers would seem to agree with Stenson's assessment over DJ's. Over the last five Players Championships before this year, a total of 24 players finished double-digits under par. This year, 22 reached that mark. The scoring average this year was nearly two shots lower than last year (71.409 vs. 73.291). The course record of 63 was challenged multiple times and ultimately equaled twice, on two separate days, by Webb Simpson and Brooks Koepka. Koepka, though aided by the ultra-rare albatross, did it on a Sunday, when the pins are supposed to be the toughest of the week.
Why was it so gettable? First and foremost, TPC Sawgrass isn't long at all. In fact, it's one of the shorter courses on the PGA Tour—it measures about 7,150 but plays to a par-72, and when it's as hot as it was this past week, the balls fly noticeably farther. Tiger Woods said he was basically playing a club less for his iron approaches all week. All four par-5s are comfortably reachable with a good drive. On ostensibly the toughest holes, long par-4s like 7 and 18, most players hit less than driver and still had a comfortable mid-iron in at most.
All this goes to say, length isn't going to be one of Sawgrass's defenses, but when you couple its relative shortness with mowed-down rough, these guys are going to tear the place apart. It's not just that the rough wasn't long this week, it's that it didn't produce the type of unpredictable lies that bermuda is known for. There were few lies that forced guys to lay up, but there were equally few fliers, which may actually be more difficult to deal with.
Another factor contributing to low scores last week was the time the tournament fell on the calendar. By May, the grass has grown in pretty fully all around the course. Back when this tournament was in March, players and caddies spoke about having to deal with barren lies around the greens. Not so much last week. When the tournament moves back to March next year, I'd expect the scoring to cool off. The course will play a bit longer because the ball won't fly as far, and competitors will once again have to deal with trickier conditions around the greens.
But the crux of this question is whether TPC Sawgrass should play like a major championship golf course. To that I say, let's stop comparing the Players to a major championship. It's not a major. It will never be a major. End of story. And that's O.K.!
Tiger was awesome over the weekend (65-69 despite faltering on the back nine both days) and looks to be on the cusp of breaking through with a victory. The consensus among other players and pundits now seems to be that Tiger will win a PGA Tour event once again, but he's still all the way down at No. 80 in the world rankings. How high can you see him ascending?
It's easy to lose a sense of perspective when discussing Tiger Woods these days, so it's worth revisiting just how far he's come in a really short period of time. It was still less than a year ago that Woods was arrested with five drugs in his system after falling asleep at the wheel with his right-turn blinker on. Less than eight months ago at the Presidents Cup, he said he's come to the terms with the fact that he might never compete on the PGA Tour again. And now here we are, taking for virtual granted that Woods will indeed return to the winner's circle once more.
I don't think the assumption that he'll win again is based in anything but reality. Tiger showed on Saturday and Sunday that he is one of the very best golfers in the world once again. It's that simple. He has an ability to vary his ball flight more than any other player not named Bubba Watson. He's still easily longer than the average pro out there. And despite some putting struggles at the Wells Fargo and early at the Players, his short game is the last thing I'd be concerned about. So yes, Tiger will win again, though maybe not another major.
Will he return to dominating the PGA Tour and entering every event as the favorite? Nope. And I think, deep down, even he knows that. The oldest player to ever be No. 1 in the world was Vijay Singh, who was 42 years, three months and three days old when he last held the spot in 2005. Tiger is already older than that, and Vijay didn't have nearly the injury history that Tiger does.
Another thing to consider is that Tiger historically doesn't play very often, and this version of Woods will play even less than before. The world rankings have a provision that considers this fact when ranking players: It's your average points per start rather than total points accumulated that determine your ranking. But playing less means giving yourself less opportunities to contend, which doesn't bode well for someone trying to ascend to the top 10.
Which brings me to my next point. Besides getting back into the top 50, which would qualify him for the World Golf Championships—including the Bridgestone in August, which he says he wants to play one last time before the event moves to Memphis from Firestone, where he's won eight times—Tiger likely doesn't care too much about the rankings. He can get into any tournament he wants to (apart from the WGCs), and he's been No. 1 for a total of 683 weeks. That's more than 13 years at the summit of your sport. I'm not saying Tiger wouldn't love to be No. 1 again—of course he would—but that's definitely not a goal.
Also, I hate to say it out loud, but everything with Tiger is still health-dependent. Yes, he looks great physically, but he's a 42-year-old with a fused back. Good health is anything but a guarantee, unfortunately...
Now, to directly answer your question: I think Tiger will be in the top 30 by the end of the season. I suspect he'll make it to at least the penultimate event in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, which would give him about 8-10 more starts for the season. The Tiger that showed up on the weekend at Sawgrass, the guy hitting 280-yard stingers on a string and flighting wedges to get to back pins and nipping 40-yard pitch shots off tight lies perfectly, is one of the 30 best players in the world. Easily.
What is wrong with Rory McIlroy?
Well, he won a premier PGA Tour event less than a month ago and played in the final group of the year's first major. It's a bit harsh to suggest that he's "fallen off." If he played well on Sunday at Augusta, and perhaps even won the tournament to complete the career slam, the story of McIlroy's season would be completely different.
But McIlroy didn't play well that Sunday and shot an indifferent 71-74 to miss the cut at the Players. So, here we are.
McIlroy has made nine starts on the PGA Tour this season. He has one win (at Bay Hill) and just one other top-10, a T-5th at Augusta. His full list of finishes on Tour this year in chronological order: CUT, T-20, T-59, CUT, 1, T-36, T-5, T-16, CUT. Nine starts, one win, two top-15s, three missed cuts. It's certainly not horrible, but it's disappointing for a guy with McIlroy's almost unparalleled talent level.
After McIlroy won his third and fourth majors as a 25-year-old in 2014, he was primed to establish himself as the world's best player, a guy capable of contending every week. After winning the FedEx Cup in 2016, he's won just once on Tour and has dropped down to eighth in the world rankings. What gives?
His putting has always been streaky, but recently there have been more off periods than there used to be. He struggled with injuries and perhaps motivation last season (he got married last April and has plenty of interests outside of golf), but those haven't been an issue this year.
More than anything, I'm beginning to think that this is the type of player McIlroy is. There will be periods in the future when things click for him, and when they do, he will win tournaments in bunches. It happened in 2014, it happened in '16 and it will definitely happen again. He's going to win at least two more majors, methinks, and plenty more PGA Tour events. But he may never be the consistent, week-in week-out dominating force that we thought he would be. Whether that's a function of his personality, his aggressive playing style, his predominantly right-to-left ball flight or something else, I'm not sure.
I do not lend any credence to Johnny Miller's theory that lifting weights has adversely affected McIlroy's career, for what it's worth.
Webb Simpson picked up his first win since 2013 and his first W since the belly putter ban went into effect. Will we begin to see his name near the top of leaderboards more often?
I'm not the biggest fan of Simpson's swing, as it would appear to rely a great deal on timing, but it's hard to argue with results. Look, maybe it's not always pretty, but this guy has now won arguably the two hardest tournaments to win of them all in the U.S. Open and the Players.
The only thing holding him back these last couple years has been the putting, and he seems to have that figured out in a big way. Simpson made everything he looked at this week using a style that blends Matt Kuchar's pin-to-left-arm method and the claw grip Tim Clark suggested he use. After his masterful week on the greens at Sawgrass, Simpson is all the way up to fifth in strokes gained putting for the season. On Thursday and Friday alone at the Players, his putting picked him up more than nine shots on the field.
Anytime a guy is putting that well, he's going to have more chances to win. Look for Webb to return to his perennial top-25 player in the world status (he's up to 20th after the win), and I'd expect him to be on the Ryder Cup team in France come September.