First-timers rising up at THE PLAYERS
May 09, 2015
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Kevin Kisner has tallied just three bogeys this week. He leads the field in least made through 54 holes. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Earlier this week at THE PLAYERS Championship, the 18 first-timers in the field took a survey. Which newcomer, other than yourself, would you pick to win?
Kevin Kisner selected Ben Martin. Given that both players are tied for second, one stroke off the lead held by Chris Kirk entering Sunday’s final round at TPC Sawgrass, it was a great call.
“Looking pretty good between the two,” Kisner said.
And so Martin reciprocated by choosing Kisner, right?
“I picked Danny Willett,” Martin said. “Actually, I don’t know Danny really at all, but he played well in San Francisco (at the Cadillac Match Play), so I went with the guy with the hot hand.
“But I appreciate that from Kis.”
Although first-timers generally do not fare well at TPC Sawgrass – just two have won, the last time in 2002 with Craig Perks – perhaps this is the week the fresh faces rise up and claim the TOUR’s signature event. Three of them are spread out among the final three groups Sunday.
The 31-year-old Kisner, still looking for his first TOUR win after 91 career starts, is paired in the final twosome with Kirk, a three-time winner seeking to turn around what he calls “a disappointing season.” To add a bit of intrigue, the two are former teammates at the University of Georgia.
Martin, a 27-year-old who won earlier this season in Las Vegas, is paired with 2011 FedExCup champ Bill Haas.
TOUR rookie Justin Thomas, already with four top-10s in his first 17 starts, is tied for fifth and playing with 2008 PLAYERS champ Sergio Garcia. The 22-year-old Thomas shot 65 on Saturday and in the process, set a tournament record by making 10 birdies in one round.
"One of the best rounds I've ever played in competition," said Thomas, who moved up 41 spots on the leaderboard. "To do it at a stage like this and a field and a golf course like this, to get back in the tournament, was big."
In addition, two other first-timers, Ryo Ishikawa and Derek Fathauer, are just three strokes off the lead. (As for Willett? Alas, the Englishman didn’t make the cut. Evidently, he left his stroke in San Francisco).
On a packed leaderboard in which 30 players are within five shots of the lead – that’s the most after 54 holes since TPC Sawgrass began hosting the event in 1982 -- the first-timers are making their presence felt. It's surprising because this tournament generally values experience. The 12 winners since Perks have averaged nearly 10 starts made at the Stadium Course.
But the pressure of contending on Sunday at THE PLAYERS will be more intense than the first 54 holes. How the first-timers will handle it could go a long way in determining the winner.
Of course, how the contenders handle a packed leaderboard will also factor into the outcome. Lose a stroke, and you're likely to tumble significantly. Heck, just even standing still won't get the job done.
That's why Kisner plans to come out firing. On Saturday, with so many early starters going low, he had dropped 20 spots before he even teed off. He wants to avoid a similar fate Sunday.
“You better get off to a hot start and start making some birdies,” he said. “(If) you try to put the steering wheel on, you’re going to get lapped.”
Martin, meanwhile, hopes to avoid getting caught in the moment. “In a perfect world,” he said, “I think I play my best when I keep my head down and don’t really worry about the things I can’t control.”
Kirk, who is making his fifth PLAYERS start, will take a conservative approach with the lead. He has rarely looked at a leaderboard this week, and he doesn’t plan to start Sunday. Besides, TPC Sawgrass is not a place that provides much chance to exhale.
“It’s not like you can ever get comfortable anyways,” Kirk said, “so what’s the point?”
If there’s any grand plan, it may involve the number 13. The last four winners of THE PLAYERS have all finished at 13 under. Kirk is obviously the closest to that number, but others who are lurking have mentioned it as a target.
That means somebody like Rory McIlroy, currently tied for 17th at 6 under, will need to shoot a 65 on Sunday. “There’s going to be times tomorrow where I’m going to have to push, I’m going to have to be a little bit more aggressive,” he said.
OK, so imagine how the first-timers are going to feel when the world’s top-ranked player decides to put his pedal to the metal. Intimidation might be a good word to use.
Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe these newbies will be fearless on Sunday. They’ve certainly looked that way for the first three rounds.
“If you’re a first-timer and playing that well on this golf course, you’ve got to tip your hat to them,” Haas said. “But I think that does show you how ready the young guys are to win. …
“They don’t fear second place or first place, if that makes sense. They don’t want to finish second. They want to win.”
Want more evidence of that mindset? Listen to Kisner’s response when asked about all the first-timers in contention.
“Just because it’s a bigger stage doesn’t mean we’re going to suck all of a sudden,” he said. “It’s cool we all can play and we all know each other.
“We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Here's how the eight players who made the cut stand going into Sunday
First-timer 54-hole position Career TOUR starts* Kevin Kisner T-2 92 Ben Martin T-2 70 Justin Thomas T-5 29 Ryo Ishikawa T-11 106 Derek Fathauer T-11 45 Nick Taylor T-46 26 Brendon Todd T-55 103 Robert Streb T-55 63 *-including this week
Ben Martin interview after Round 3 of THE PLAYERS