The toughest tournament to defend
Here’s why no PLAYERS champion has ever successfully defended
March 12, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Rory McIlroy looks to defend title before THE PLAYERS
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Winning THE PLAYERS Championship is difficult. Backing it up, apparently, is impossible.
The 2020 PLAYERS Championship is the 47th edition of the PGA TOUR’s flagship event and yet to this point no one has managed to successfully defend the title. This is despite huge names such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods being among the champions list.
THE PLAYERS sports by far the most years without a title defense on the current PGA TOUR schedule, ahead of the TOUR Championship and Sanderson Farms Championship, each going 33 years without a successful defense. Next on the list is the Wells Fargo Championship at 17 years.
Now compare that to recent results at other big tournaments on the schedule – Brooks Koepka repeating as the U.S. Open winner in 2018 and the PGA Championship winner last season; Padraig Harrington repeating as Open champ in 2008; and Woods repeating as Masters champ in 2002. In fact, since the inaugural THE PLAYERS Championship in 1974, 10 major winners have successfully defended.
To be fair, there are multiple winners at THE PLAYERS, like three-time champ Nicklaus (1974, 1976, 1978) and two-time winners Woods (2001, 2013), Steve Elkington (1991, 1997), Davis Love III (1992, 2003), Hal Sutton (1983, 1996) and Fred Couples (1984, 1996) but no one has gone back-to-back. The average distance between each win for the two-time winners at TPC Sawgrass is 11 years.
Nicklaus’ three titles came before the permanent move to TPC Sawgrass in 1982, but familiarity with Pete Dye’s course hasn’t made the task of repeating easier. You could argue it’s even more difficult.
The best finish for a defending champion is a tie for fifth place, done by Nicklaus in 1977 (across the street at Sawgrass Country Club), Tom Kite in 1990 (at TPC Sawgrass) and Sutton in 2001 (also at TPC Sawgrass). They are three of just six top-10 finishes by champions the following season.
Perhaps the best chance was Mark McCumber, who was just two strokes behind after 54 holes in 1989. He was still just two behind at the turn on Sunday but failed to make a birdie in the closing stretch. Instead, two bogeys left him with a final-round 74 and four strokes behind winner Kite.
Others who had a decent chance: Nicklaus in ’77 (three shots back through 54 holes, then shot a final-round 72 to fall four back) and Kite in ’90 (three back through 54 holes before a 73 on Sunday left him seven adrift).
And then there was Craig Perks, who had surprised everyone in 2002 when he was 3 under on the final three holes with just one putt. Perks chipped in for eagle on 16, made a 25-foot birdie putt on 17 and then chipped in for par on the last to win by two.
A year later he was one off the pace after round one and just two back through 36 and 54 holes. Sadly for the New Zealander, he bogeyed the third and tripled the fourth on Sunday en route to a 76 and T17 finish.
So why is it so tough? Well it boils down to two simple things.
1. The Field
The PLAYERS Championship is 144 of the best players in the world, made up mostly of PGA TOUR tournament winners over the last 12 months, the world top 50, the top 125 players from last season’s FedExCup and those inside the top 10 of the current FedExCup season not already exempt among others. In other words … it is stacked.
“There's a lot of events where you can … narrow the field down to 25 or 30 players and say this is the group that has the best chance this week,” 1988 champion Justin Leonard said. “But here, that group is like 144 people because everybody here that's in this tournament has the ability and the game to win. If anybody gives you a bet, take the field bet this week, because everybody here has got a chance to win.”
2. The Course
TPC Sawgrass refuses to give bias to one type of player. You cannot and will not contend with just one or two parts of your game working. You need it all.
“There's places that you can kind of fake it and get around but not here. This place you have to be on top of your game physically and mentally, period, and that's just an incredibly difficult thing to do,” 1999 champion David Duval said. “And year to year the conditions are different. It's just a situation where if you're not, for lack of a better way to put it, firing on all cylinders around this golf course, it will expose you. That's the beauty of the design.”
Added 2015 champ Rickie Fowler: “I saw something that was posted not long ago of the recent past champions here and what guys did well from whether it was driving the ball, approach, putting, scrambling, and there was nothing really that stood out as one thing between all players. Some guys hit more irons off tee, some guys hit a lot of drivers, some guys putted well, but there's not one particular thing that was necessarily common between all of them. To me, at the end of the day, it's whoever has the most control and kind of keeps it simple, fairways and greens.”
“It is a positional course and since everyone hits it pretty far, we all are sort of going to the same spot. So it opens up the entire field with a chance here,” 2004 champion Adam Scott said. “It’s very open much like the Open Championship. If you are creative enough … everyone has the power to get it round an Open Championship course and you don’t overpower this golf course either.”
Webb Simpson, the 2018 champion, said the finishing stretch also cannot be left out of the reasoning. Recent changes have ensured the back side of the course can be gettable, but still dangerous for those willing to take a risk. Rory McIlroy, Kevin Chappell and Shane Lowry all hold the record with 7-under 29s from 2016. Fowler finished the last four holes birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to get into a playoff which he would eventually win.
“It's one of those courses where you feel so uncomfortable and unconfident with a one-shot lead or two-shot lead even with a few to go, compared to on other places you can put it on cruise control,” Simpson said. “So much can happen on 16, 17, 18 and really now from 12 on with it being a drivable par 4. So the back nine presents itself to have fireworks.
“Even in 2018 when I had a big lead, I really didn't feel comfortable until I hit it on the green on 17. You're not really thinking bad thoughts, but you're thinking you've seen history, you've seen guys hit it in the water there on 17 and make a mess out of it. That's why it's hard to defend, because come Sunday, anyone can shoot 6-, 7-, 8-under.”
Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said this sort of mental battle of when to attack and when not to is a huge part of the championship.
“The straightest players are generally, from a technical proficiency standpoint, the most arrogant, so they're not used to not being able to go at things, because they can do it. But you get here and you make mistakes of precision, arrogance, and you pay the price for it,” Chamblee said. “The longest hitters are the most arrogant when it comes to trajectory. They can solve problems with trajectory. They've got wedges in their hands so they can get over anything and around anything to difficult pins, but you make the mistake here of trajectory or angle because of your distance and you get punished.
“This golf course is like a five-sided Rubik's Cube. Nobody really is proficient at that thing. It's a technical battle. It's a mental battle. It's a psychological battle. It's a patience battle. And so much luck goes into winning a golf tournament anyway, even on golf courses that are far more prejudiced to power. But on a golf course like this, with the importance of having great luck and then the unlikeliness that you would have the absolute perfect demeanor, absolutely perfect clarity, great judgment, great technical proficiency, luck on your side. It's just hugely unlikely that someone would come here and be able to do that (two years running).”
Does this mean last year’s winner and current FedExCup champion Rory McIlroy is doomed? He clearly hopes not, and actually sees it as a chance to be part of history.
“I'd love to give myself a chance,” McIlroy said earlier this week. “If I can keep playing the way I've been playing and get myself into contention on Sunday, it would be something extra to play for, which would be pretty cool.
“It is an opportunity for sure. I don't think you ever need an extra motivation when you come to this golf tournament, but to be the first one to defend here would be very cool.”
Very cool indeed.
HOW THEY’VE FARED Defending champions at THE PLAYERS Championship Year Player Result 1975 Jack Nicklaus T18 1976 Al Geiberger T24 1977 Jack Nicklaus T5 1978 Mark Hayes T28 1979 Jack Nicklaus T33 1980 Lanny Wadkins T45 1981 Lee Trevino T12 1982 Raymond Floyd T22 1983 Jerry Pate DNP 1984 Hal Sutton T41 1985 Fred Couples T49 1986 Calvin Peete CUT 1987 John Mahaffey T32 1988 Sandy Lyle CUT 1989 Mark McCumber T6 1990 Tom Kite T5 1991 Jodie Mudd CUT 1992 Steve Elkington CUT 1993 Davis Love III T67 1994 Nick Price CUT 1995 Greg Norman T37 1996 Lee Janzen T46 1997 Fred Couples T10 1998 Steve Elkington DNP 1999 Justin Leonard T23 2000 David Duval T13 2001 Hal Sutton T5 2002 Tiger Woods T14 2003 Craig Perks T17 2004 Davis Love III T33 2005 Adam Scott T8 2006 Fred Funk T16 2007 Stephen Ames CUT 2008 Phil Mickelson T21 2009 Sergio Garcia T22 2010 Henrik Stenson CUT 2011 Tim Clark WD 2012 K.J. Choi CUT 2013 Matt Kuchar T48 2014 Tiger Woods DNP 2015 Martin Kaymer T56 2016 Rickie Fowler CUT 2017 Jason Day T60 2018 Si Woo Kim T63 2019 Webb Simpson T16 2020 Rory McIlroy ???