Backspin: Expect the unexpected at THE PLAYERS

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May 06, 2013
Brian Wacker,

If Derek Ernst’s win Sunday at Quail Hollow wasn’t the perfect prelude to THE PLAYERS Championship, I don’t know what is. In other words: Expect the unexpected.

In a Q&A I did with Jim Nantz, who will present good friends Fred Couples and Ken Venturi into the World Golf Hall of Fame Monday night, he had trouble coming up with a prediction for that very reason. Just look at the list of past champions at TPC Sawgrass.

2012: Matt Kuchar
2011: K.J. Choi
2010: Tim Clark
2009: Henrik Stenson
2008: Sergio Garcia
2007: Phil Mickelson
2006: Stephen Ames
2005: Fred Funk
2004: Adam Scott
2003: Davis Love III

Not a lot in common with that group. You’ve got long hitters, short hitters, historically good putters, historically not-so-great putters.

THE PLAYERS Championship might be the most wide-open tournament on the schedule. There are generally only two rules that apply: Hit it straight, and make a lot of putts.

So who do I like? You’ll see at the end of the column, but here’s a hint: He’s won a major championship and played well at Quail Hollow.

As for Ernst, he drove it straight and long last week and was third in greens hit and 11th in putting -- a pretty potent combination at TPC Sawgrass.

Only two players, however, have won THE PLAYERS in their first trip to TPC Sawgrass: Hal Sutton in 1983 and Craig Perks in 2002.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

“Last tournament I won?  Probably conference -- no, I won ASU's tournament in college about a year ago and a month, a year-and-a-month ago, so mid-April.” -- Derek Ernst, who was playing for UNLV this time a year ago, on Sunday afternoon after becoming the youngest player at 22 years old, 11 months and 19 days, to win on TOUR this year.

“A number of factors contributed, Mother Nature being the biggest. But you know our standard. They deserve good greens, and we didn't produce good greens. And we'll make sure that never happens again.'' -- Wells Fargo Championship tournament director Kym Hougham on the greens at Quail Hollow, where among other things Nos. 8 and 10 were played under a lift, clean and place all week because of battered greens.

"I don't support the belly putter. I think it's bad for the game of golf." -- Padraig Harrington. And that was after shooting an 80 with a belly putter last week in Charlotte.

TWEETS OF THE WEEK

@THEPLAYERSChamp: The 17 #islandhole is officially an island! Good thing the forecast is clear next week! #3days -- More than 9 inches of rain fell at the end of last week and into the weekend at TPC Sawgrass, where No. 17 really did become an island as you can see here.

@BrandtSnedeker: Calling it..Goldencents wins the derby!!, which was followed by, And that is why I don't gamble!!! -- Snedeker, talking about horses anyway, after Orb rallied a 2 1/2-length victory Saturday at the Kentucky Derby.

THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. One of the biggest reasons 22-year-old rookie Derek Ernst won Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship: He played the “Green Mile” (Nos. 16, 17 and 18) in a combined 2 under for the week, which of course included his birdie from 192 yard with a choked-down 6-iron on the final hole of regulation. By comparison, Phil Mickelson, who missed out on the playoff by a stroke, played those same holes in a combined 3 over with three bogeys -- two of which came Sunday. Sure, all the shots count the same. But that approach on 18 Sunday was gutsy. “I was trying to hit it as close as I possibly could,” he said. “I knew Dave (Lynn) was at 8. I didn't know what Phil (Mickelson) was or where he was at, so I was just trying to get tied with David at 8. I never really at all (thought about winning). I just kind of if stuck to my game, then whatever happened, happened.” What happened of course was his first win, which also earned him a spot in this week’s PLAYERS Championship, a pair of World Golf Championships, the PGA Championship, next season’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the Masters. 

2. How difficult was scoring at Quail Hollow over the weekend? There was only one bogey-free round (Luke List on Sunday), and the 10-under total was the highest in the tournament’s 11-year history. That makes Ernst’s victory all the more impressive.

3. How will Phil Mickelson fare at THE PLAYERS Championship? If last week is any indication, he might be in line to win there for the second time in his career. “I feel like I hit a lot of good iron shots; my game feels like it's coming around,” he said Sunday from Quail Hollow. “Next week, there are very few drivers, so I'll be hitting 3-woods and hybrids off most every tee. I'll probably carry a driver, but I just don't know what hole you can hit it there. If I can hit the ball well off the tee shot like I did in '07 when I won, I feel like the other parts of my game are there.” If is always a big word when it comes to Mickelson, but he’s played respectably at TPC Sawgrass the last few years, finishing in the top 35 all but once since his lone win there, and he comes off a week in which he led the field in putting.

4. Robert Karlsson came up a couple of strokes short of Sunday’s playoff, but there was a moral victory in there for the Swede. Last July, he couldn’t even bring the club back during a practice round at the British Open. The mental torture caused Karlsson to withdraw at Royal Lytham & St. Annes before he eventually sought out Sergio Garcia, who had battled his own re-gripping demons a decade earlier. Karlsson returned a month later but had missed seven of 12 cuts since -- until Sunday in Charlotte, where he tied for fourth, his best finish since 2011. “I'm very, very happy with the way I played this week,” Karlsson said. “At least I've proven to myself I can play golf, so that is very, very positive.”

5. The next time you’ll see David Lynn in the U.S. after this week's PLAYERS: At the PGA Championship in August. Lynn, who finished second at Quail Hollow (he also finished second at last year’s PGA at Kiawah), wasn’t in the U.S. Open so he made other plans. “I've actually booked a holiday,” the 39-year-old Englishman, who is playing his first season as a member after finish in the top 125 on last year’s non-member money list, said. “As it stands I'm going on holiday. I need a holiday now, to be honest. So I'm going to do that.”

6. Stat of the Week I: Four. That’s how many birdies were made on the 18th hole Sunday at Quail Hollow. One of them was by Ernst to cap a round of 70 to get into the playoff that he would eventually win. And if you think it was some sort of fluke, think again. In the playoff he hit 3-iron on the same hole to 15 feet. 

7. Stat of the Week II: This was the third straight year that the Wells Fargo Championship was decided in a playoff. The only other times it went extra holes? 2004, 2005 and 2006. I guess we know what to expect in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

8. Stat of the Week III: Ernst should enjoy his win at Quail Hollow while it lasts. The last four winners of the Wells Fargo Championship all missed the cut the following year.

9. Stat of the Week IV: Four of the 11 winners of the Wells Fargo Championship have been 23 years old or younger. Rickie Fowler was the oldest of that group at 23 years, 4 months and 23 days when he won in 2012. Rory McIlroy was the youngest at 20 years, 11 months, 28 days when he won in 2010. Ernst and Anthony Kim also are among the group.

MONDAY BACKSPIN MAILBAG
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Can Billy Horschel make the 2013 Presidents Cup team and/or the 2014 Ryder Cup team? -- Tom White

Let’s stick to the Presidents Cup since the Ryder Cup is still a long way off. To answer your question: Absolutely. Horschel is currently 13th in the standings -- the top 10 automatically qualify. It won’t be easy, though, with Jason Dufner, Bill Haas and Bubba Watson directly in front of him. Still, Horschel will get consideration for a captain’s pick. Remember, he went 3-1 for the U.S. in the 2007 Walker Cup and beat Rory McIlroy in the process.

Does a new sponsorship and new clubs pose a legit excuse for poor play for a player at the professional level? -- Peyton Spear

It depends. In talking to several players when Rory McIlroy was undergoing his change in equipment, many of them told me that no matter how much testing you do there’s definitely an adjustment period. And we’ve certainly seen players go through that before. The bottom line is it’s all about hitting shots during the pressure of competition to gain full trust in the switch. 

Have a question for the mailbag? Email your question to brianwacker@pgatourhq.com, or tweet it to @pgatour_brianw.

FORWARD SPIN: WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK
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What I liked from Rory McIlroy last week: He played his first 65 holes at a difficult Quail Hollow in 7 under to get within a shot of the lead Sunday. What I didn’t like: He played his last seven holes in 3 over with a double bogey, two bogeys and one birdie. Still, McIlroy continues to make progress and though he’s never made the cut at TPC Sawgrass, I can see that changing this week on what should be a soft golf course. Will he win? It seems like a stretch given the aforementioned track record so here’s another player to keep an eye on: Lucas Glover. He’s played well each of the last two weeks, drives it straight and he seems to fit the bill of some recent and unpredictable winners like K.J. Choi, Tim Clark and Henrik Stenson.

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