PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | In a game of statistics, here is one that may have escaped your attention but is no less significant for all that. European golf has been on the crest of a wave for some time with victories in seven of the past nine Ryder Cups and one European or another regularly winning major championships and tournaments on the PGA Tour. At last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., came one of the most startling scoreboards ever from a European point of view. Europeans, led by the winner, the Open champion, Francesco Molinari of Italy, filled six of the first nine places.
But here is a “but” and it is a big but. Since the Players Championship started in 1974, only one man from the four countries that make up Britain and Ireland has triumphed in an event that some refer to as the fifth most important championship in golf and others might term the most important annual event to be held in Florida.
His name? Alexander Walter Barr Lyle, otherwise known as Sandy. And his victory came in 1987, 32 years ago.
Men from Britain and Ireland have won major championships in the U.S. and made significant impressions on the professional game in America for decades now. Think of Augusta and the victories in the Masters by Lyle (1988), Englishmen Sir Nick Faldo (1989, 1990 and 1996) and Danny Willett (2016) and Wales’s Ian Woosnam (1991).
Pádraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy have so far won the PGA three times: Harrington in 2008 and McIlroy in 2012 and 2014. British and Irish golfers have won the U.S. Open three times since 2010 starting with Graeme McDowell in that year, McIlroy in 2011 and Justin Rose in 2013. Two of the past eight Open champions have been Irish – Darren Clarke (2011) and McIlroy (2014).
Just to heighten this anomaly concerning players from Britain and Ireland, players from mainland Europe have won at Sawgrass recently. In the past 11 years, the Spaniard Sergio García led from the first round to win in a playoff in 2008, the Swede Henrik Stenson scorched the turf with a last round of 66 on his way to victory in 2009 and Martin Kaymer of Germany, having opened with a 63, led after the second, third and fourth rounds in 2014.
Surely McIlroy, the most serial winner in recent years with four major championship victories and 14 victories in all on the PGA Tour, has done well at the Players? Not really. His record reads: played nine times, three top 10s – 2013-15 – and four missed cuts, including last year.
“The beauty of this course is that it suits everybody. It suits all different types of game.” – Justin Rose
Then what about Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist, and last year’s FedEx Cup winner? He has missed only one year since 2002 and in those 15 attempts his only top-10 finish at this event is a T4 in 2014.
Lee Westwood’s highest finish in 14 appearances is the same, fourth in 2010. Tommy Fleetwood has only played twice and came 41st his first year (2017) and seventh last year. Ross Fisher, a Ryder Cup player for Europe in 2010, has played five times and missed the cut four times.
Of the younger Englishmen, Tyrrell Hatton, a Europe Ryder Cupper in Paris in 2018, came tied 41st in 2017 and missed the halfway cut in 2018, in his only two appearances. Matthew Fitzpatrick, who represented Europe in the 2016 Ryder Cup, has played three times, reached the weekend only once and finished 46th last year.
Is Englishman Ian Poulter an exception to the general rule that Britons have not found the Stadium course to be a happy hunting ground, bearing in mind that he has twice finished second (2009 and 2017)? Hardly. They are his only top 10 finishes in 15 appearances.
If you want consistency at an event, consider Rose at Augusta – five top-10s in 16 appearances and an average finish of eighth for the past five years. No Briton or Irishman comes close to that sort of consistency at the Players.
“It’s a very simple formula here,” Tiger Woods said on Tuesday. “Hit it good. It’s not real complicated. The golf course is one that Pete (Dye) has set up to intimidate visually. You have to overcome that part of it. And no, you can’t play poorly and win this event. I think we all have to accept that you’re going to hit good shots too, as well, and going to get some weird hops, some really funky lies, whether it’s off the fairways or around the greens. Stuff where you’re standing on your head and hitting shots, which is not normal but on a Pete Dye course it is.”
“It’s the Bermuda grass,” Fanny Sunesson, who caddied for Nick Faldo more than 20 years ago, said. “There is not much of that in northern Europe. Chipping from that is difficult. I am not saying that they can’t chip because that would be silly but I am saying that chipping from Bermuda grass and reading the greens with the grain on is not easy.”
Sunesson suggested finding out how many winners of the Players have come from the south or played a lot of golf on Bermuda grass and the answer is the following: Webb Simpson (2018), Matt Kuchar (2012), Tim Clark (2010), Davis Love III (2003 and 1992), Hal Sutton (2000) and Justin Leonard (1998).
Billy Foster, the veteran caddie who worked for Seve Ballesteros and Westwood before starting with Fitzpatrick earlier this year, has an opinion for this apparent lack of success. “It’s the Nick Faldo effect,” Foster said.
I beg your pardon, Billy. Come again.
“After Faldo’s era everyone was tying themselves up in elastic bands and using beach balls because if that sort of preparation and practice worked for him they reasoned it might work for them too,” Foster said. “It didn’t. I remember a Dunhill Cup event (countries entered teams of three) 20 or so years ago and of the men representing England not one was in the top 100. It’s only in the past 12-15 years that what I call the Faldo effect has worn off with the emergence of good young English players.”
There is more to it than that. The Players always has been a difficult tournament at which to predict the winner. Without wishing to cast a slur on Fred Funk’s ability, would he have come to mind as a winner in 2005? Probably not. How can one describe the victory in 2002 by Craig Perks, 35 at the time, as anything other than sensational after he played his last three holes in nine strokes. Sensational but completely out of the blue. At the start of that year he was ranked 256th in the world.
“The beauty of this course is that it suits everybody,” Rose said on Tuesday. “It suits all different types of game. I think it’s fantastic to have a championship played that suits the whole (PGA Tour), the whole membership. If this was a modern style golf course where every carry was 300 and things widened out, it would be frustrating for 40 percent of the field. I don’t think any one of the PGA Tour players that are here this week is frustrated by this golf course. I think everybody gets here thinking, I’ve got a good chance to win.
“You might run into six, seven, eight or nine venues a year where you’re playing against guys who just maybe can’t beat you based on their skill set versus yours. This golf course allows everybody that chance to win, which I think is appropriate for the Players.”
Here at Sawgrass in 2019, change is in the air. The course looks magnificent, as good as it has for years. It’s the first time the event has been held in March since 2006. Could the date change be a portent? Could this year be the first time a Briton or an Irishman wins for getting on for 40 years? Justin Rose, Players champion 2019 has a nice ring to it. So does Tommy Fleetwood. And how about Rory McIlroy, Players champion?
That doesn’t jar on the ears at all, does it?
Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland reacts to his approach shot during the final round of the 2011 Players Championship. Photo: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images
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