Planet Golf — 12 March 2021 by GW staff and news services
Thomas the best among THE PLAYERS

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Justin Thomas found the right time for a near-perfect performance to put a rough start to the year behind him, rallying from three shots behind with bold play to close with a 4-under 68 and win THE PLAYERS Championship on Sunday.

Thomas becomes only the fourth player to win a major, THE PLAYERS Championship, the FedExCup and a World Golf Championships, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

He called it as good as he has ever played tee-to-green, and he needed it to outlast Lee Westwood, a hard-luck runner-up for the second straight week. Westwood birdied the final hole for a 72 to finish one shot behind.

Thomas went birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie around the turn, and put away Westwood for good with a pair of lag putts from 50 feet — one for birdie on the par-5 16th to take the lead, another on the island-green 17th for a par.

Thomas still had one more shot before he was in the clear. He took on the water framing the left side of the 18th fairway, the ball moving right-to-left and bouncing straight off the crown of the first cut, safely in the fairway.

His approach landed on the fringe — the first green he missed all day — leaving a simple two-putt for par and the 14th victory of his PGA TOUR career. 

“I fought so hard today,” Thomas said. “It’s probably one of the best rounds of my life tee-to-green. I’ve seen some crazy stuff happen on TV in the past, and I’m glad to be on this side of it.”

All the crazy stuff came early.

Bryson DeChambeau, coming off a win last week at Bay Hill, topped an iron off the tee on the par-4 fourth hole that went only about 140 yards until it plunked into the water. From 237 yards on a forward tee to a green protected by water, he hit a slice with a 5-iron some 40 yards right of the green.

“Dude! I don’t know what happened!” he said to his caddie. “I’ve never done that before.”

DeChambeau made double bogey and was scratching the rest of the way to stay in the game. He still had a chance with an eagle on the 16th hole to get within two, but when Thomas made par on the 17th, his chances were about over. DeChambeau shot 71 and tied for third with Brian Harman, who had a 69 and played the final 12 holes without a bogey.

The 47-year-old Westwood hit his tee shot into the water on the fourth hole and had to make an 8-footer to save bogey. He hit his approach out of the pine straw that clipped two branches and found water on the par-5 second hole to make bogey.

He was never far away from the lead, and Westwood regained a share of the lead with an 8-foot birdie putt on the 14th.

His chances began to slip away with his second shot into the par-5 16th. It hit a big oak and dropped into the sand, and his third shot found a bunker in front of the green. Instead of matching birdies with Thomas, who was in the group ahead, Westwood had to scramble for par to stay one behind.

And on the 17th, his long birdie attempt rolled 7 feet by the hole. He faced another crucial par putt, and he finally missed.

Thomas was outside the cut line after nine holes on Friday. He followed that with a 64 on Saturday to get in the mix, and he finished off in style to pick up $2.7 million with a win against the strongest and deepest field in golf.

It wrapped up a year in which the PGA TOUR shut down after one round of THE PLAYERS a year ago. Thomas was among those serving on the Player Advisory Council that was a part in getting golf back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

He looked at the gold trophy with Commissioner Jay Monahan to soak in how far golf had come in a year. 

Second Round

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Lee Westwood isn’t interested in comparing himself with the player who rose to No. 1 in the world a decade ago. All he knows is he’s playing some of his best golf, and he gets another chance to see if it can hold up against the best field.

Westwood had all the shots Friday in a bogey-free round at The Players Championship, with two birdies at the start and a nifty pitch to a troublesome pin on the par-5 ninth to close with a another birdie and a 6-under 66.

That gave him a one-shot lead over Matt Fitzpatrick (68) going into the weekend on the Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass, with U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau not too far behind.

Westwood, who turns 48 next month, played well enough to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week at Bay Hill except that DeChambeau was one shot better in a fascinating duel of generations on a course that favors power.

Sawgrass favors no particular style, and it produced an eclectic mix of contenders at the halfway point.

“I think to compete in any of these tournaments against the best players in the world, you can’t have any weaknesses in your game,” Westwood said. “I wouldn’t be able to say I’m doing this better or that better. There’s not a shot out there I’m afraid of. There’s not a shot out there I’ll walk up to and think, ‘I haven’t got this one.’

“I’m comfortable out there with everything.”

He was at 9-under 135 and will be part of the All-England final pairing Saturday.

Sergio Garcia was another shot back after a 72 that looked like it was a lot worse with so many putts the Spaniard missed, including a 23-inch par putt on the 15th hole that followed a 5-foot par putt he missed on the 14th.

Still, the 2008 champion showed plenty of game — and enough par putts that went in — to stay in the hunt. He drilled his approach to inches away on the par-5 11th for his third eagle of the week, which a already ties the tournament record.

And he finished in style with an approach that danced around the flag and settled 5 feet away for birdie on the 18th.

“It was a beautiful roller coaster,” Garcia said. “There were a lot of good things. Unfortunately, a lot of bad things. But more than anything there was a lot of fighting, and that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of because when things are not really happening and you miss a couple putts here and there, it’s easy to kind of let the round get away from you.”

When the second round was suspended by darkness, 16 players were within five shots of the lead.

DeChambeau was in the group three shots behind after a 69 that began with a double bogey from the trees and a muffed chip out of the rough from behind the green. He was bogey-free the rest of the way on a course that doesn’t let him swing for the fences because of water and cross bunkers and other brands of trouble.

“I’m happy with the fact that I’ve still been able to keep myself in it and score well,” DeChambeau said. “I’ve been pretty lucky, for the most part. I don’t think that’ll happen this weekend. I’ve got to make sure that my game is good off the tee, so I don’t have those issues occurring and I don’t have to rely on luck for the most part. I have to get it in the fairway.”

Kirk holed out from the first fairway for eagle and closed with back-to-back birdies for a 65. Starting with a chip-in for birdie on the 15th, he played six straight holes in 6 under.

Sungjae Im tied the tournament record with six straight birdies, a streak that ended when he missed the green to the left on the par-3 third, and even then he nearly chipped in. He had to settle for a 66 and was three shots behind.

Dustin Johnson wasted a good start and shot 70, leaving him eight shots behind. Jordan Spieth made his first double bogey in 411 holes — the longest streak of his career — and shot 74 to make the cut on the number.

The weekend is as much about who’s missing.

Rory McIlroy, who opened with a 79, wasn’t much better Friday. He made another double bogey on the 10th hole and shot 75. His 36-hole total of 154 was his highest ever in his 11 appearance at The Players Championship. He is the first defending champion to miss the cut since Rickie Fowler in 2016.

Four players from the top 10 in the world missed the cut — Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Tyrrell Hatton and Webb Simpson, whose hopes ended with one of 13 balls in the water at the island-green 17th.

First Round

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Sergio Garcia has played TPC Sawgrass enough to know that trouble is lurking around every turn, and the opening round Thursday at The Players Championship provided another example. Just not for him.

A solid start turned into a brilliant one for Garcia, who finished birdie-birdie-eagle for a 7-under 65, staking the Spaniard to a two-shot lead among the players who finished their opening rounds (21 players will have to finish their first rounds on Friday morning after play was suspended because of darkness).

Garcia, who won the PGA Tour’s premier event in 2008, holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-4 seventh, hit a 3-iron to 15 feet on the par-3 eighth, and closed it out with a 5-wood to 18 feet for eagle on his final hole.

The 65 matched his best score on the Stadium Course.

Garcia was among only five players from the morning draw who broke 70 in what appeared to be ideal conditions, with only a mild breeze and a course in immaculate condition. The trouble came from pin positions that required more precision than usual, and the Sawgrass hazards that make this course as entertaining as any.

“For some reason, it just kind of fits my eye,” said Garcia, who has a pair of runner-up finishes to go with his victory. “I see what I want to do pretty much every hole and then it’s a matter of doing it.”

He did it better than anyone, adding another eagle earlier in his round with an approach to 10 feet on the par-3 17th.

Corey Conners, a contender last week at Bay Hill, and Matt Fitzpatrick each had a 68, while Bay Hill runner-up Lee Westwood and Tom Hoge were another shot behind.

Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth were among those playing in the afternoon.

Garcia didn’t have to look far to see what kind of damage Sawgrass can inflict. He played alongside Rory McIlroy, who began his round with a double bogey from the woods on No. 10 and finish a nine-hole score of 43 by hitting two tee shots into the water on the 18th for a quadruple-bogey 8. He finished with a three-putt bogey for a 79, his highest start of any tournament since a 79 at Royal Portrush in the 2019 British Open.

“The big number on 18 didn’t help and then doubling the first wasn’t helpful, either,” he said. “It’s hard to recover when you just haven’t played good. If you take that 18th hole out, it still wasn’t a very good day.”

Henrik Stenson hit into the water on consecutive holes for a double bogey and a triple bogey, and he put two more in the water — including on the island-green 17th — for an 85, his highest score ever on the PGA Tour.

Byeong Hun An did all his damage on one hole — four tee shots in the water on the 17th for an 11 — for an 83. Kevin Na hit three in the water on the 17th for a quintuple-bogey 8 and then withdrew with a bad back and an 81 on his card.

Rickie Fowler had three double bogeys in his round of 77, leaving him in danger of missing the cut and likely missing out on the Dell Match Play in two weeks.

Garcia’s lone bogey came after perhaps his best shot. From the pine straw next to a tree left of the first fairway, he hooded an iron that came out low and right to left with enough run that it settled 25 feet away. And then he three-putted.

The most remarkable round might have belonged to Hoge, who managed to get through 18 holes without a bogey.

“It was a good, solid day, kind of what you want here on the Stadium Course,” Hoge said. “I haven’t been hitting it that well coming in here, so I just tried to hit a lot of greens and stay out of trouble for the most part.”

iktor Hovland had a double bogey on his second hole, the par-5 11th and otherwise was mistake-free, until after his round. Hovland realized that when he marked his ball and moved the marker a putter length to get out of the line of Justin Thomas, instead of returning the marker to the same spot, he measured the putter length the wrong direction.

He notified officials and was assessed a two-shot penalty, giving him a 72.

Sebastian Munoz was at 4 under with one hole to play, that being the 18th, and a shot into the water led to a triple bogey for a 71. He tried to take out the positives of five birdies, and that’s what makes this tournament so tough to predict. There are plenty of birdies available. It doesn’t take much to erase all the good work.

“You do have a lot of wedges in your hand,” Munoz said. “Par 5s are reachable. So yeah, we do have a lot more chances than a usual course. But I mean, danger is around the corner on every hole.”

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