PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | The idea was born over a drink, as good and sometimes bad ones often are, one January evening in Florida. A number of writers sat around making suggestions for distinctive daily stories about the Players Championship.
“We need ones that are provocative and thoughtful and fresh as new paint,” the commissioning editor said, as commissioning editors are wont to do. He added: “Don’t talk to me about the 17th. I know Shane Lowry holed-in-one there last year, the 10th hole-in-one (at No. 17) in championship history. There can’t be anything left in the world to be said about that hole and its green other than it’s not an island because it has a strip of land connecting it to the rest of Florida, and islands are completely surrounded by water.”
Then he turned his gaze on me, aware that I, the only European present in this group, had attended more than 30 editions of an event known in some quarters, though not this one, as the fifth major championship. A mischievous look spread over his face as he said: “A friend of mine pointed out the other day that the way to stop the Europeans from winning the Ryder Cup was for it to be moved to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. The Euros can’t play that course.”
“I don’t know how many Players have been staged. Forty-something? (Actually, 49.) So you’re saying five European winners in 40, i.e., over 10 percent? I don’t feel like that’s a bad average, though I would have to dig into it some more.” – Rory McIlroy
In years gone by, European invaders burned the White House, taxed Americans without giving them representation in Britain’s Parliament, sent the Englishman William Penn from Buckinghamshire to the U.S., where the state was later named after him and indulged in the worldwide acclamation given to the British-born comedian Bob Hope. But a lack of success by golfers from the continent of Europe at Sawgrass, whether the event was played in May or March? Hmmm.
It took Rory McIlroy barely the time it takes him to hit a golf ball to bring this xenophobic hypothesis to its knees. After a slow beginning, he dismantled it almost as fast as he might an artichoke, leaf by leaf.
“I guess I would have to look at the historical averages of European players winning on the PGA Tour and seeing what percentage that is compared to,” said McIlroy, who was born in Northern Ireland and is competing at this event for the 13th time. “I don’t know how many Players have been staged. Forty-something? (Actually, 49.) So you’re saying five European winners in 40, i.e., over 10 percent?”
He paused to give this proportion some thought. “I don’t feel like that’s a bad average, though I would have to dig into it some more,” he continued.
It is worth bearing in mind that in the very early years of the Players, few European golfers were either eligible or inclined to compete. Seve Ballesteros, for example, only made his debut in 1979, a few months before he would win the Open Championship for the first time. It was five years after the first Players, when 72 golfers competed at Atlanta Country Club. Fittingly for the man whose name is so important in the world of golf, Jack Nicklaus won the inaugural event. Three years later, in 1977, the event went south to Sawgrass Country Club near Jacksonville in northeast Florida. In 1982, 82 golfers competed over the Stadium Course, Pete Dye’s fiendish invention, at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, where it has been held ever since.
In 1987, Europe won the Ryder Cup in the U.S. for the first time. Earlier that year, Sandy Lyle, a man born in England who represented Scotland, and one of the five world-class golfers from that continent, was the first European to receive the handsome Players trophy. It was another 21 years, 2008, before Lyle’s success was matched by the Spaniard Sergio García, and this was followed the next year by Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, Germany’s Martin Kaymer in 2014 and McIlroy himself in 2019. Look more closely at those five victories in 33 years and you notice that four have come in the past 15 years starting with Garcia in 2008. That is not quite like the run of European success in the Masters, where Ballesteros, Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and José María Olazábal won at least once in 20 years, but it’s not far off.
Jon Rahm of Spain to lift the trophy on Sunday evening, anyone? McIlroy to repeat his triumph of three years ago, anyone? They are respectively the Nos. 1 and 3 players in the world this week.
Let’s look at runners-up at the Players. Starting in 1992 with Faldo, and Langer in 1993 and 1995, Europeans have finished second 14 times in this event. Let’s list ’em after Faldo and Langer: Scotsman Colin Montgomerie (1996), Irishman Pádraig Harrington (2003 and ’04), Englishmen Luke Donald (2005) and Ian Poulter (2009, ’17), Garcia (2007, ’15) Scotsman Martin Laird (2012), Swede David Lingmerth (2013) and Englishman Lee Westwood (2021).
McIlroy continued: “I mean, as the years have went (sic) on, we’ve had more and more Europeans play in this event, so you would like to think that the chances of European victory are going to become more and more as those participation levels increase. I don’t think there is anything about this course that doesn’t suit European golfers. All the top Europeans live here. They play on this tour. You could make that argument 20 years ago, but I just think that with the way the professional golf landscape is, we all base ourselves in this country and specifically in this area of Florida at this time of year, so I don’t think there are any excuses.
“But if someone was to say to me that 10 percent of Players Championships have been won by Europeans, I would say that is a pretty good return.”
Jon Rahm of Spain to lift the trophy on Sunday evening, anyone? McIlroy to repeat his triumph of three years ago, anyone? They are respectively the Nos. 1 and 3 players in the world this week. Victory by either would be no more than these two proud golfers deserve. Oh, yes. Both are Europeans, too.
Commissioning editors, eh? What do they know?
Top: Jon Rahm, along with the rest of the European contingent at the Players Championship, hopes to drink victory come Sunday. Photo: Ross Kinnaird, Getty Images
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