Though it may seem hard to believe in some parts of the world where winter seemingly won’t go away, it will soon officially be spring and that means golf season will be fully underway.
For purposes of the PGA, it can be said the season began a few months ago, but this week it will officially launch with the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedre Beach in Florida.
This marks the first time the tournament takes place this time of the year since 2007 as part of the PGA’s reconfiguration of the schedule so that the FedEx Cup Playoffs end in August instead of September. The Players Championship had been played in March for 30 years prior to the move to May.
So while there have been some tournaments this year in which most of the top worldwide stars participated unless they were injured or opted not to play, The Players should have the best of the best teeing off starting Thursday. It is a precursor to the Masters in a month’s time.
I applaud the PGA for some of its progressive moves to create a different narrative, in particular allowing its schedule to start earlier with major tournaments. The sport has gone through some ebbs and flows in recent years, dominated by a few golfers. What’s interesting is that Tiger Woods (Bridgestone Tour B XS) and Phil Mickelson (Callaway Chrome Soft X) are as relevant as ever. Their Tiger vs. Phil battle in the desert a few months ago dubbed The Match provided some interesting entertainment. Mickelson’s victory in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am a month ago underlined he still has game.
He was hot early last season before coming undone in the U.S. Open. Presumably the course conditions won’t be nearly as treacherous this year, although with the U.S. Open it seems there is a belief that forcing the players to play outside of their comfort zone because of the slick greens is more important than showcasing their natural skills.
But back to the Players. It is hard to single out any one player as the favorite. Parity has become the operative word in the PGA Tour. You can no longer pencil in Jordan Spieth (Titleist Pro V1x), Dustin Johnson (TaylorMade TP5x), Justin Thomas (Titleist Pro V1x), Rory McIlroy (TaylorMade TP5x) or Justin Rose (TaylorMade TP5) as the pre-eminent tour players. There are new, emerging stars such as Brooks Koepka (Titleist Pro V1X), Bryson DeChambeau (Bridgestone Tour B X), Jon Rahm (TaylorMade TP5x), Patrick Reed (Titleist Pro V1) and Hideki Matsuyama (TaylorMade TP5). And that’s great. As some stars move closer to age 50, you need the 20-somethings and 30-somethings to create new interest.
Rickie Fowler (Titleist Pro V1) and Matt Kuchar (Bridgestone Tour B X) continue to be the best players on the PGA Tour not to win a Major. In January, just before his victory in the Sony Open in Hawaii, Kuchar changed from a Tour B S ball he had been using because he wanted a lower-spinning ball. He talked about the change with Golf Digest a month before his win in Hawaii.
“My irons were starting to spin a little more due to some differences in technique that have crept into my swing,” he said. “I was looking to bring some spin down with the irons because it had gotten to be too much. I think some of the work that I’ve put in to hit the ball a little higher and spin it a little more just got to a point where I could use less spin, and this ball does that for me. I tried the Tour B X ball in (November) and it brought the spin down. I tried a couple of drivers and the combination of the driver and ball had my ball speed going up a little bit. I thought it was a great combo.”
Bridgestone has made some serious inroads in recent years to become a serious player in the battle for ball brand supremacy on the PGA Tour. Titleist is still the most popular brand by an overwhelming majority, but Bridgestone is gaining popularity with some of the stars on both the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour.