Players Championship: 7 Things We Learned from K.J Choi's Playoff Win
After a rain-soaked Saturday, competitors at the Players Championship were left to finish both their third and fourth rounds on Sunday.
Some of the players wilted under the conditions, while others flourished.
In the end, a pair of veterans played an additional hole to find a Players Champion.
Here is what we learned this week at the Players.
K.J. Choi Under-the-Radar Act with Fans Is Over
With a great par on the 72nd hole and a solid par on the 73rd hole, Choi claimed the biggest tournament win of his solid, if unspectacular, career.
The journeyman pro from South Korea, who is very popular amongst players on tour, vaulted 19 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking from 34th to 15th with his win on Sunday.
He did it the way he always plays: steady, solid and never flashy.
He finished the week tied for 43rd in driving distance, but 10th in driving accuracy. He was tied for sixth in putts per round and second in strokes gained—putting, the newest number on tour used to describe how often players make up strokes against the competition based on the length of their putts.
In other words, Choi typified exactly what the Players Champion must do: manage his game on one of the most challenging courses on Tour.
Most tour players know Choi to be an exceptional player. The fans should start to recognize, too.
David Toms Still Has the Game to Win on Tour, If...
The runner up on Sunday, David Toms, showed that his game is as solid as it has been throughout his career.
He finished the week as the leader in driving accuracy and 60th in driving distance. He was fourth in greens in regulation and tied for 20th in putts per round for the week.
Those last two numbers are belied by the two critical mistakes he made on Sunday.
The first came on the 16th hole of the fourth round. With a single stroke lead over Choi, Toms elected to go for the par-5 green in two. Need I remind you that this is the same player who laid up on the par-4 18th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club in the fourth round, and got up and down for par to claim his only major win?
I'm sure he was thinking an eagle would win the Players and a birdie would at least preserve his one stroke lead.
You have to give him credit for playing to win and not playing not to lose.
The second mistake was the par putt on the playoff hole. That's just not something we are used to seeing from Toms, who is currently 10th on tour in strokes gained—putting.
Those mistakes aside, Toms still has the game to win if the venue is the right one and he can put this week's missteps behind him.
You Do Not Have to Be a Long Hitter to Win the Players Championship
Obviously, every player wants to hit the ball further, but as legendary golf teacher Harvey Penick used to say, "the woods are full of long hitters."
Hitting it long doesn't necessarily mean you are going to win every week.
The leader on tour this year in driving distance is J.B. Holmes. He is the only man in the top-10 of driving distance that finished the Players better than 40th. He was tied for sixth, four shots back of the playoff.
Unlike a lot of venues on tour, where a premium is placed on hitting the ball a mile without regard of how far offline the shot may be, Sawgrass demands that you play smart from tee to green. Positioning is key.
A perfect example was Phil Mickelson's tee shot on the par-3 13th on Thursday. His shot landed on the green and spun backward. Taking the slope on the front of the green, the ball ran off the green, through a strip of rough and into the water fronting the green.
Mickelson was very critical of the course setup after that round, but here's the thing: It's not like he has never played there before. He's won this tournament. He had to know you can't get too close to that slope or your ball might spin off into the water.
At Sawgrass, you have to put your ball in the right place, create angles for yourself into the greens and for putts, or you will not be able to score.
Speaking of Phil and Tiger...The End of Their Domination Is Upon Us
Even fans of either (or both) of these men must realize that we are witnessing their demise as consistent winners on tour.
Tiger has had a few years worth of mental and physical issues now. The fact that he was only able to complete nine holes at Sawgrass on his surgically rebuilt knee raises more questions than it even begins to answer.
On top of this is his current swing rebuild, which clearly has a long way to go.
Mickelson is just falling victim to the one opponent none of us win against: Father Time. Putting aside the fact that both men in Sunday's playoff are in their 40s, it is a young man's tour.
Phil is 40. He will be lucky to win a tournament or two per year for the next few years, but his days of winning the big events are probably over.
Do we expect more from Tiger and Phil? Of course we do, but why? Because they have set us up to expect excellence from them week in and week out, year in and year out.
Woods turned pro in 1996 and is third on the list in PGA Tour wins with 71. He is second on the list of professional majors won with 14.
Mickelson turned pro in 1992 after being the last man to win a tournament on tour as an amateur. He is currently tied for 10th in victories on tour (39) and has more majors than a couple guys you may have heard of named Els, Couples, and Love III.
Both have shown glimmers of the players they used to be—Woods at the Masters, Mickelson in Houston, but the best days of these two hall of fame players are behind us.
Just Because You Have Won a Major Doesn't Mean You Can't Collapse
By channeling his inner Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell showed us that just because you have won a major doesn't mean you are immune to complete disintegration.
The defending U.S. Open champion fell apart on Sunday after taking a one-stroke lead into the final round.
The trouble started on the sixth hole when McDowell put his tee shot into the woods. He would bogey there, and then follow up with bogies on two of the next three holes.
He made the turn in two over, and then the fun really started.
On the back nine, McDowell made three bogies and a double against zero birdies. In the final six holes, McDowell lost five strokes to par, including a double at the infamous island green 17th.
It wasn't as bad as McIlroy at the Masters, but it was much worse than we would have expected from as good of a player as McDowell.
On the PGA Tour, Take the International Players in the Big Events
When you are looking at the marquee events on tour, those being the majors, the World Golf Championships, and unique events like the Tournament of Champions and the Players, Americans are beginning to fall behind the rest of the world.
There have been five of these upper-level events played so far this year. Americans have won two of them.
Last year, Americans won two of nine of these kinds of events (and lost the Ryder Cup again).
The point is that players from beyond the borders of the USA are winning more often on the biggest stages.
The Players is a perfect example. Phil Mickelson is the only American to win in the last five years, and only three Americans have won in the last 10 playings.
Is it that American players are not winning the way they used to, or that foreign-born players are winning more often? As usual, the answer is not that cut and dry, but if I had to place the emphasis on one way or the other, I would say the foreign born players are just playing better.
Of course, nowadays most of them come to America to attend college. That can't be a coincidence.
One Little Slip in Concentration Can Cost You
The 18th at Sawgrass is consistently the hardest hole on the course and one of the hardest holes on tour year after year.
David Toms was one of only four men to make birdie in the final round of the Players on Sunday. He did it with a great putt from about 18 feet after he blistered a 6-iron out of a sand-filled divot.
The putt tied him with K.J. Choi and forced a playoff. That playoff began on the 17th hole—the "Island Green" hole.
Toms, hitting second, appeared to have the advantage after Choi left his tee shot on the level above the hole while Toms put his tee shot more or less on the same level as the hole, about 18 feet away.
Choi rolled his approach putt to about three feet and Toms let his first putt roll to about three-and-a-half feet.
Then it happened, the little slip that cost Toms. Needing only to hole a putt that he normally could hole with a board at the end of a broomstick to extend the playoff, Toms missed his par putt and allowed Choi to take the tournament on the iconic "Island Green."
Toms would later be quoted as saying, "I was probably thinking ahead and thinking about the next hole." (Emily Kay; waggleroom.com; May 16, 2011)
Anyone who has played the game can tell you that is the mother of all, umm, mess-ups.
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