Some golf fans don’t like the way that the Players Championship is called the fifth major. It’s a bit of a marketing gimmick used by the PGA Tour to talk up their flagship tournament but it does capture the importance and size of the Players Championship.
Every year, the strongest field in professional golf turns up to TPC Sawgrass to do battle. The inaugural edition of the Players Championship was won by Jack Nicklaus and that sets the tone nicely for a winners’ list which features many of the best golfers of all time. The golfers aren’t the only stars on show, though. The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass lives up to the name with inbuilt viewing areas for fans and a finishing stretch of holes that guarantees drama including the iconic island green 17th hole.
|2022||TPC Sawgrass||Cameron Smith|
|2021||TPC Sawgrass||Justin Thomas|
|2019||TPC Sawgrass||Rory McIlroy|
|2018||TPC Sawgrass||Webb Simpson|
2022: Cameron Smith
The Players Championship is known for producing incredible late drama and the 2022 renewal was no different. Cameron Smith started his final round with an incredible birdie blitz, picking up shots in five of his first six holes. Just when the Australian looked to be coasting home he made three consecutive bogeys to close his back nine and fall back into a share of the lead with Paul Casey.
Smith got his title charge back on track with four birdies on holes 10 to 13 and another on 17 after an incredibly brave, aggressive tee shot. At that point, Smith had Casey beaten (the Englishman a victim of some awful luck when his tee shot found an old pitch mark in the centre of the 16th fairway) but he opened the door to the hugely impressive Anirban Lahiri with a wayward drive on the par four 18th before finding the water with his second shot. Another excellent up and down (the theme of Smith’s week) saw him make a five and when Lahiri was unable to birdie the 18th hole, Smith became the sixth Australian to win the Players Championship.
The final round drama was very much welcomed by golf fans who had stuck with the 2022 Players Championship throughout a series of lengthy weather delays. At one point it looked unlikely that the tournament would be finished in five days but the ground staff did a fantastic job to get TPC Sawgrass playable and a tournament that felt like it had been going on for a month came to a conclusion on Monday.
2021: Justin Thomas
After the cancellation the year before, it was a joy to have the Players Championship back in 2021 with fans in attendance. The galleries, which were smaller than usual, were treated to a rock-solid performance from Justin Thomas. Other players would have struggled to overcome the tough start that Thomas had to the tournament but he battled away over the first two days before taking it away from his rivals on the weekend.
A pair of 71s to start the week left Thomas in a tie for 22nd place. That was not a bad position to be in on a golf course that provides surprises year on year. The fightback began on Saturday with a round of 64, the lowest of the week by anybody in the field. That still left him three shots behind Lee Westwood going into the final day’s action. Thomas knew he’d need some help from Westwood if he was to win but resolved to apply as much pressure as possible with a continuation of his play from Saturday. That is exactly what he did, firing in a round of 68 while Westwood could only make an even-par 72 which saw him fall agonisingly short.
Thomas was emotional after the tournament. Not only was this a huge win but it came after a very challenging few months in which he lost his grandfather and was dropped by a sponsor for an ill-advised outburst on course. “I fought so hard today,” Thomas said. “I’ve seen some crazy stuff happen on TV in the past and I’m glad to be on this side of it.”
The 2020 tournament was cancelled.
2019: Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy had a sneaky suspicion that the shift of the Players Championship back to March would be good for him. TPC Sawgrass is a slightly different prospect at that time of year and McIlroy’s belief that it would suit his game was proven correct in spectacular fashion as he added the Players Championship to his trophy haul.
McIlroy was not the only golfer to welcome the Players’ return to March. Jim Furyk, one of the last players to get a place in the field, put up an incredible fight in Ponte Vedra Beach. It was only some late brilliance from McIlroy that took the trophy out of Furyk’s hands. By McIlroy’s own admission, that late charge came after he glanced the leaderboard late in his round and saw how well Furyk, Eddie Pepperell and Jhonattan Vegas were doing. Those three picked up the mantel from Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood who both squandered great positions with some disappointing golf on Sunday.
There was not a hint of disappointment about McIlroy as he spoke to the press after getting his hands on the newly designed Players Championship trophy. After a tough spell, McIlroy said he was aiming to build on this in the years to come. “I’ve started the second phase of my career and feel I can make the next 10 years even better than my first 10,” he said. “It means everything to be a Players champion, it’s the toughest tournament to win.”
2018: Webb Simpson
Of the top five players on the 2018 Players Championship leaderboard, only Webb Simpson failed to shoot -4 or better during the final round. Simpson actually went round in a one-over-par 73 on Sunday and yet he won the tournament by four shots.
It’s fair to say that Simpson took control of the Players Championship early on. He fired in a 66 on Thursday to take the first-round lead and was never likely to relinquish it after following up with a 63 on Friday. As if a five-shot lead on Saturday morning wasn’t enough, Simpson extended it to nine shots by the end of play, shooting 68 as most of the field struggled with the gusty wind. That gave him a very comfortable cushion which came in handy as he finally found life tough as the wind didn’t lay down on Sunday.
Winning the Players is always a big deal but it meant even more to Simpson as he lost his father Sam in November. He kept returning to his father’s lesson to “keep preserving” when things got tough on Sunday, a mantra that helped him see out the biggest win of his career. “Man, it means everything to me,” Simpson said afterwards. “I want to play well here, you know, like just like any other tournament, but this is a special one. This is our tournament.”