PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — By the time 5:20 p.m. eastern rolled around on Sunday afternoon, the galleries had all but abandoned the first tee at TPC Sawgrass. Just a few stragglers remained, nestled against the ropes, jockeying for space against the handful of tournament organizers as the first seconds of golden hour ticked away.
Up ahead, the hordes swarmed a handful of groups containing golf’s superstars. They grumbled off in the distance — like a freight train — and with every distant groan, they seemed to beckon the same question: Who’s it going to be today?
Would it be Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas? Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm? Or maybe Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler?
Surely, they presumed, someone was due for a moving day charge. Two-and-a-half rounds at the Players Championship had delivered an overabundance of talking points, and an underabundance of names. The rain was fun (for a minute), so was the wind, and the cold provided at least a few chuckles on Sunday morning. But now it was well into the third round at Sawgrass — in other words, it was time to start caring about the tournament.
Back at the first tee, Sam Burns slapped a drive into the fairway, eliciting a smattering of applause from the crowd. Then came Tom Hoge — another fairway, another murmur. Finally, Harold Varner III rounded out the group.
They took off down the first fairway alone, but for a handful of television cameras. The birds chirped, and the breeze floated through the palms. The golf course was whisked in serenity — the sort of scene one would expect from the final group off on a sunny Sunday evening … were it not the group leading the biggest event on the PGA Tour calendar.
Hoge, Burns and Varner began their Sunday near the top of the leaderboard at the Players, and as often happens in golf, they ended it in the exact same position. That much shouldn’t have been a surprise. So why was it?
Because the charge never came. Johnson, Thomas, Scheffler, Hovland, McIlroy and Rahm all faded on Sunday afternoon, and spare for some true Monday chaos, none will enter the final round in contention. Much ado was made about the field strength at the Players, which featured each of the top 10 players in the world and 13 of the top 15. But heading into Monday, just one of those top 15 were within four strokes of the leader, Anirban Lahiri.
The stars faded for a lot of reasons. They got unlucky. Most of them, at least, wound up in the hellish Thursday afternoon wave, which required well-executed survival of both monsoon and windstorm just to remain in contention. They started off behind the 8-ball, and some weeks, that’s just too much to overcome.
“It was very weird, hard to get into a rhythm,” Justin Thomas said of his bad scheduling luck. “Had a lot of different emotions; first off, thinking it looks like we were on the right side of the draw and being pretty excited about that, and then realizing that was very much not the fact and then just having to get over that as quick as I could because it’s obviously frustrating. Especially when I feel like I’m playing well, kind of getting just thrown into something like that.”
The stars also gave it away. The Players was certainly there for the taking. Sunday afternoon found Sawgrass in remarkably gettable shape, with winds down and conditions soft for the first time since Thursday evening, and superintendent Jeff Plotts opting for pin positions built for scoring. But halfway through play on Sunday, Johnson, Thomas, Rahm and McIlroy were a combined two over.
Late Sunday evening, Thomas spoiled his own charge by blasting a drive OB on the par-4 7th. At almost the same time, Johnson spoiled his with a bogey on the par-3 8th. That was the story on Sunday for the game’s biggest stars, but it was also the story of the week. Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland were part of the morning wave who played TPC Sawgrass in cupcake conditions on Thursday. Rahm’s three-under 69 featured a pair of three-putt bogeys, while Hovland’s one-under 71 starred a double-bogey with five shots inside of 55 feet.
What happened to the stars? In truth, they just got beat.
Earlier on Sunday, Ponte Vedra native Cameron Smith inadvertently cut to the heart of the issue. No, Smith said, he doesn’t play Sawgrass when it isn’t in tournament condition — it throws off his entire barometer for the course.
“I just think the condition throughout the year is so different to this week,” he said. “Probably not so much this week actually. But last year, for instance, was so firm and fast. We typically play it more like this.”
Expectation, that fickle word, played a significant role in undoing golf’s superstars at the Players. While the game’s best struggled to reconcile conditions slower, softer and soggier than they’d ever seen at Sawgrass, the game’s rest rolled with the punches to staggering success.
“You just do what you need to do next, like order food, eat, go stretch, sleep,” said Lahiri, who could capture his first PGA Tour win with a victory on Monday. “There’s not really that much to think. I think that’s a good thing because you don’t have that much time, so you go to sleep, you wake up, you stretch, do your routine, warm up, go and hit the next shot. I think that helps me because it’s just do the next thing.”
The next thing for Lahiri, as things presently stand, is to protect his one-stroke lead heading into a marathon final day. He was never anyone expected to see at the top of the leaderboard come Sunday evening, but then again, he wasn’t trying to be.
“I’m just being in the moment right now. I’m really happy,” he said. “I’m happy, I’m confident. The ball seems to be coming out in front of me, which hasn’t happened that much in the past. You know, I’m just going to try and do the same thing: Fire at pins that I’m comfortable with and clubs that I’m comfortable with. When I get an uncomfortable shot then just respect it and try and make a putt. I think that’s all I can do.”