The start of golf’s “fifth major”, the Players Championship, is just a few days away and we can feel the excitement already.
It’s more Phoenix Open and less Masters/U.S. Open/Open Championship, which is why it is fun to watch and probably just as fun to play in — at times.
The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponta Vedra — home of the diabolical par-3 17th Island hole — will play host to the event for the 36th straight year and the defending champ is Jason Day.
The best players in the world will begin the hunt on Thursday for a purse in excess of $10 million, plus the added bonus of a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, a three-year invite to the Masters, three-year exemptions for the U.S. Open and Open Championship, as well a 600 FedEx Cup points.
Day won it last year by a healthy four strokes over Kevin Chappell for his first ever Players title.
There have been some great champions since the fifth major started in 1974 and we’ve identified 10 as being at the top of the heap.
10. Greg Norman – 1994
One criteria we look for in a great tournament winner is margin of victory. After that, we look for overall tour effectiveness when selecting our 10 greatest. Norman, for all the pain and heartache he endured on the tour, tore the Sawgrass course up in ’94, shooting a lowest ever score of 264 (24-under) and winning by four strokes over Fuzzy Zoeller. Anyone following the tour who had a heart had to feel good for Norman, who was on quite a run, having won the Open championship for the second time in 1993 and then coming in second at the PGA championship later that year. The only blemish on his 1994 tour year was a T18 at the Masters. Otherwise, the huge win at Sawgrass and top-10s at the U.S. Open (T6) and PGA Championship (T4) made it a great year. Norman shot a superb 63 the first day and led the tournament wire-to-wire.
9. Jason Day – 2016
Like his countryman Greg Norman over two decades earlier, Jason Day sizzled to an opening round 63 and led wire-to-wire to win his inaugural Players Championship in 2016. That victory at Sawgrass bookended a nine-month run of excellent golf by the Beaudesert, Queensland native, starting with a victory at the Canadian Open in July 2015. It was followed — by what one tour veteran called “Tigeresque” — by August 2015 victories at the PGA championship and the Barclays and a September 2015 triumph at the BMW championship. Day won the Arnold Palmer in March of 2016, followed by a win at the WGC Match Play later that month and finally the Players Championship. The third ranked player in the world gets defence of his 2016 title rolling with a practice round May 9.
8. Nick Price – 1993
Before Tiger Woods blew onto the golf scene, Nick Price was “the man” on the PGA Tour. The South African golf star started his ascent to the top of the World Golf Rankings in 1992 with a win at the PGA Championship and then a win at the Texas Open a couple of months later. He got the ball rolling on a superb 1993 year, where he would top the money list for the first of two consecutive years, winning the Players Championship (back when it was played in March). Price did it in style, too, beating the previous four-round score of 273 by three strokes for a -18 overall. The three-time major champion (he won The Open Championship and the the PGA Championship again in 1994) had to shoot very well to hold off German challenger Bernhard Langer, who kept pace on the wire-to-wire winner by being one stroke back before Sunday (-12 to -13). However, Price put the hammer down in the final round, shooting a five-under 67 while Langer could only muster a one-under 71.
7. Stephen Ames – 2006
A dual citizen of Trinidad and Tobago and Canada, Canadians got behind Stephen Ames in 2006. Earlier that year, the brash golfer boasted, prior to taking on world no. 1 Tiger Woods at the WGC Match Play Championship, “Anything can happen, especially where [Tiger’s] hitting the ball.” It showed uncharacteristic moxie for a Canadian, even though he was soundly thrashed 9 and 8, which is the worst whipping (other than 10 and 8) that can be taken in a match-play event. Ames took it in stride and a few weeks later would win the biggest tournament of his career. In the final March Players Championship (it moved to mid-May in 2007), Ames shot a pedestrian one-under 71 to sit six strokes off the lead in a tournament that had 48 of the top 50 golfers in the world playing, including Woods. He made a big move in the second round, shooting a six-under 66 to sit one stroke off the lead held by Jim Furyk. On Saturday, Ames went two-under and grabbed a one-stroke lead over Sergio Garcia. He capped his big victory with a five-under 67 on Sunday to win by one of the biggest margins in the event’s history at six strokes over world no. 3 Retief Goosen.
6. Fred Couples – 1984 and 1996
There aren’t, or weren’t, too many players on the tour as good natured and as beloved as Fred Couples. The five-time Ryder Cup competitor and 1992 Masters Champion (his only major victory) started his pro career in 1980 and won his first PGA Tour event in 1983 at the Kemper Open. In 1984, at the tender age of 24, Couples stormed into the lead at the Players Championship on cut-down day with a smoking eight-under 64, then hung on with consecutive one-under rounds of 71 to narrowly beat tour veteran and legend Lee Trevino by one stroke. Twelve years later, a seasoned Couples had to fight back from a disappointing Friday when he shot a 72 to fall five strokes off the lead held by Tommy Tolles. He got back into contention with a 68 on Saturday, to sit four back heading into Sunday. He was within striking distance of Tolles and Colin Montgomerie on Sunday when he fashioned a huge final three hole swing. Couples hit an astounding 220-yard, two-iron second shot to within 25 feet on the par-5 16th hole and then knocked in an eagle putt for a one-shot lead. He sank a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 17, while Montgomerie and Tolles dropped shots. “I hate to admit it, but it was a pretty easy 64,” said Couples, whose 270 gave him a four-shot victory over Montgomerie and Tolles for his second Players Championship triumph.
5. Hal Sutton – 1983 and 2000
Sutton is another one of those “good guys” on the tour who was one of the loop’s hot young stars in the early 1980s. Like Fred Couples, Sutton rose to prominence on the tour early that decade and at the age of 24 in 1983, would come up big at the 10th Players Championship at Sawgrass. That year, Sutton was five strokes off the lead on cut-down Friday, having shot 73 and 71. Thunderstorms washed out the Saturday rounds and on Sunday, Sutton moved one stroke closer to the lead with a 70. At four strokes back starting the final round, it didn’t look good for Sutton, but he went out and shot his best round, a 69, to narrowly beat Bob Eastwood by a stroke. In 2000, Sutton was then a wizened old veteran at 41, but would shoot three consecutive rounds of three-under 69 to hold a one-stroke lead on hard-charging tour superstar Tiger Woods heading into Sunday. Sutton and Woods would both shoot 71, giving Sutton his second career Players Championship.
4. Davis Love III – 1992 and 2003
In golf terms, Love is a lifer. The newly elected member of the World Golf Hall of Fame won his first PGA Tour event in 1987, when he was just 23. The North Carolina native won his last tournament, at the age of 51, in 2015 at the Wyndham Championship. It was a good year for Love in 1992, when he won three tournaments, the first of which was the Players Championship. Love trailed in each of the first three rounds and sat three strokes behind leader Nick Faldo, who was in at 13-under on Saturday. Love, however, would shoot a jaw-dropping 67 on Sunday to win by four strokes over Faldo and fellow second-place finishers like Ian Baker-Finch and Tom Watson. The 30th edition of the fifth major in 2003 was to be another in a string of four PGA Tour victories (his most in one calendar year) for Love, who again had to reel in the leaders to win on Sunday. After three rounds, Love was two back of Padraig Harrington and Jay Haas at 9-under 207 (with Fred Couples and Craig Perks). It was cold and blustery on the Sunday at Sawgrass, but Love sizzled to a 64 to easily win by six strokes over Haas and Harrington.
3. Tiger Woods – 2001 and 2013
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Woods was the dominant player on the tour, seemingly winning every big tournament he deigned to play in. Now sidelined by multiple injuries, he was on top of the world in 2001, having won a personal high nine tournaments (including three majors) in 2000. Woods being Woods, he sat six strokes off the Players Championship lead in ’01 after cut-down Friday. But, he would stage one of his legendary comebacks, shooting a six-under 66 on Saturday to sit two back of Jerry Kelly going into Sunday. Kelly would be no match for Woods on Sunday, as Tiger shot a 67 to win by a stroke over runner-up Vijay Singh and four strokes over playing partner Kelly. In 2013, Woods would have his last best year on the circuit before injuries kept him out of many events, winning his last five PGA Tour events, including the 40th Players Championship. Again that year, Woods never led in the first three rounds, but sat in a tie with Sergio Garcia and David Lingmerth at the conclusion of a rain-delayed third round. Lingmerth and Garcia, in the first pair, must have succumbed to that Woods magic (he was in the second last pair), as Woods shot a 70, to Lingmerth’s 72 and Garcia’s 76, to win by two strokes.
2. Steve Elkington – 1991 and 1997
Elkington may not have had the cache of fellow Aussies Greg Norman, Ian Baker-Finch or Craig Parry, but the Wagga, Wagga, New South Wales raised golfer held his own. In 1991, he had won exactly one tour event and began the Players Championship with admirable rounds of 66 and 70 to sit one stroke back of Paul Azinger on cut-down day. An even-par 72 third round saw him slip to four shots back after Azinger fired a 69 to be the 54-hole leader. Elkington was hot on Sunday, shooting a four-under 68 to clip Fuzzy Zoeller by a stroke for the win. Six years later, 1995 PGA Champion Elkington did not have to chase anyone to win his second Players Championship. He shot every round in the 60s (66-69-68-69) to beat runner-up Scott Hoch by seven strokes, the largest margin over victory ever at Sawgrass.
1. Jack Nicklaus – 1974, 1976 and 1978
It’s fitting that golf’s finest ever player Jack Nicklaus won the inaugural Players Championship and then two more within four years. For that, he is our greatest Players Championship champion, hands down. The first Tourmament Players Championship was held in late August at the Atlanta Country Club. Nicklaus trailed 54-hole leader J.C. Snead by three strokes, but would produce a magical 67 on Sunday to beat Snead by two. During America’s bicentennial year, 1976, the Players moved to the Inverrary in Fort Lauderdale. Again, Nicklaus victimized Snead, beating him by three strokes to claim his second championship. Just two years later, Nicklaus would win his final TPC, this time at Sawgrass. Conditions on that weekend were fairly windy and brutal. Nicklaus was the 54-hole leader at just two-under, one stroke ahead of Lou Graham. On Sunday, Nicklaus would end up shooting a three-over 75, but would still beat Graham, who also shot 75, by a stroke.