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.
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.