2016 Players Championship Wrap-Up: Is the Big Three Dead?

May 15, 2016

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.—And now in the rear-view mirror, the Players. My parting thoughts, half-thoughts and fun-sized snacks:

I’d just like to point out that this week at the Stadium Course was one of the most exciting U.S. Open qualifiers I have attended in a long time.

Whatever the PGA Tour did to mess up the greens and the course setup in Saturday’s disastrous third round, they got it right on Sunday, or close enough. Justin Thomas managed a 65 and there were an appropriate number of scores in the red. Including the one-under-17 posted by winner Jason Day. Still, no one is going to forget the third round in the near future.

Said Day after the win, “I’m glad I don’t have to play the course again.”

You have to keep a long-term perspective in golf. There is no place for knee-jerk reactions due to the up-and-down nature of the game. No golfer plays his best golf every week, even the world’s elite.

That said, I’m this close to throwing dirt on the Big Three concept invented by the media last year after The Players.

You heard it here first: The Big Three may be dead. Now it looks more like a Big One—Day, your Players champ and three-time winner this year—and a Medium-Large Two—Jordan Spieth, he of the Augusta Hangover, and Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland’s champion footballer. 

Day has six wins in less than a year. He struggled all weekend with his game and, gee, he still won by four. He is not only one of the game’s longest hitters but he’s near the top in putting stats. That combo, barring 12-handicap iron play, is close to unbeatable.

There is no avoiding the truth that Day is clearly pulling away in this race and if there’s anyone even kinda-sorta trying to keep up with him, it’s Aussie Adam Scott and his two wins. 

Big Three-wise, I believe Day’s best is better than Spieth’s best or Rory’s best but I’d sure like to see that put to the test a few times. Like in every major the rest of this year, next year and the next.

A couple of new folk heroes could’ve been born this week if not for Day stepping on everyone’s knuckles for an inevitable Players victory. 

Crafty veteran Ken Duke and former U.S. Amateur champ Colt Knost were Cinderella stories who caught what was left of the spotlight after if fell off Day. 

I read somewhere that Knost was described as an Everyman. I don’t know about that, but he’s a very, very good golfer. He appeals to the public because he’s got heft, he looks like one of them (OK, us). Asked about his workout routine Friday after he tied the course record with a 63, Knost laughed and said, “I have a little program, I just don’t go quite as hard at it as some guys.” He put together a nice week and tied for third but Day just didn’t let him get close.

“I love this course and this tournament,” said Knost, 30, a Southern Methodist University alum. “It’s one I feel like I should contend at every year.”

Duke, a 47-year-old Arkansas native who played college golf at Division II Henderson State, had a sizzling third-round 65 in difficult scoring conditions, a round that NBC’s Johnny Miller called probably the best round on tour in the last five years. 

“I knew I did something special when Adam Scott and Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry were giving me a hard time yesterday, like what course did you play?” Duke said. “That just gave me some confidence going into today to try to finish it off.”

Duke hung tough Sunday but wasn’t able to match his eight third-round birdies. He shot even-par 72 and tied for third with Knost, Matt Kuchar and Justin Thomas.

“It was electric out there, a lot of great fans,” Duke said. “It was a great week for me. I’ll take it.”

SCORES: See the Final Leaderboard from 2016 Players

Not to be all knee-jerky again already but if the Big Three is going to continue, we may need to rethink Rory McIlroy’s place in the lineup. He was terrific up until a year ago, slumping by his standards since then. His replacement would be Adam Scott, who won twice this year, has his game and his putting in order. He closed with a nice 68. If you’re looking for an early favorite for the afore-mentioned U.S. Open at Oakmont where hitting fairways and greens will be paramount, Scott is a fairways-and-greens guy who fits the bill—if you don’t want to go with the chalk, Day, that is.

Good news and bad news. The good news is, I can get you a prime tee time later this week at the Stadium Course. You, your friends (a rash assumption, I realize), your relatives, anyone. Let’s say, oh, $25 per head.

The bad news is you’ll have to send me cash in advance and also, the greens might be slightly aerated by then, although I think the technical agronomic term is “destroyed.” The greens will be torn up and regrassed starting Tuesday. But I think you’ll still enjoy the course with the greens should be running slightly slower than on the weekend for The Players. Oh, and Paypal only, please.

I have never seen a bird poop on a marquee professional golfer on the first green in the final round of a tournament. It happened Sunday to Ernie Els, who laughed it off, which is about all you can do when there’s bird crap running down your shirt. Oh, I’ve seen plenty of birds dump on golfers, including one near miss of my own at Doral years ago, but never at a pro event. Certainly not at the Masters. Those birds are potty trained.

“I was standing right next to him,” said Justin Rose. “That was kind of a humorous moment to start the day and had us both giggling. It had me chuckling under my breath still while trying to make a two-footer for par. “

While I feel bad for Ernie, I feel worse for the rest of the world because the moment was captured on video and currently posted on our website, Golf.com, along with every website in the world that cares about important news.

I feel worst of all that no matter what I write, even if it involves finally finding the Lindbergh Baby, it will not get as many clicks as the Ernie-bird-poop video.

One of the week’s highlights was Russell Knox, who hit four balls into the water Saturday at the 17th green (including one shank) and when he finally got his seventh shot on the green, gladly acknowledged the crowd’s ovation and had fun with his disaster after the round. Sunday, he hit the green but three-putted for a bogey.

“I’ve never been so nervous over a shot in my whole life,” he said. “It was a career-defining moment for me. If I couldn’t get off the tee there today, I was in big trouble. So I was very happy that I hit the green. I beat my score from yesterday by five, so pretty solid.”

It was a great way to deal with adversity. “You can only laugh,” he added. “It’s the 17th at Sawgrass. It’s one of the coolest holes ever, and yesterday it got my lunch.”

Knox said he looks forward to having another go at 17 next year. Well, that’s what he says now.

I’d vote The Players as the most improved tournament over the last five years or so, based not only on the incredible increase in infrastructure on the grounds—the luxury suites, the innovative refreshment areas and entertainment spots—but for its vastly improved atmosphere of excitement, younger-trending galleries and efforts to build on tradition.

Defending champion Rickie Fowler missed the cut this week but there he was Sunday evening to present the Waterford crystal trophy, known as The Players Trophy, to the champion. That’s a nice touch. Of course, if I’d won $1.8 million the year before, I’d come back and flip burgers for the new champ and take out the trash if the Tour wanted me to. Of course, that $1.8 million check would have to clear, first.