Tour Confidential: Thomas’ dominance, the Bryson Rule and island-green redesigns
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Collin Morikawa’s victory, The Concession Golf Club, Brooks vs. DJ, Annika Sorenstam and more.
1. Justin Thomas won the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Sunday, edging out Lee Westwood (yes, runner-up again!) by a stroke; Thomas, who now has 14 PGA Tour wins, played the weekend in 12 under par, a Players Championship record. What most struck you about his performance?
Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephyr_melton): How ridiculously hot Thomas can get. He was plodding along in neutral for most of the front nine, but one laser long iron on the 9th flipped a switch. That four-hole stretch in five under catapulted him from three back to two ahead in what felt like an instant. Once Thomas gets cooking, he’s a force.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): That was a ball-striking clinic, obviously. But it was also a clinic that yielded pretty much nothing over the front nine. The patience Thomas showed while waiting for his putter to warm up was almost as impressive as the lasers he kept hitting.
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Alan Bastable, executive editor (@alan_bastable): I’m still thinking about his tee shots on 16 and 18. First the low, knuckling, stinger draw on 16: I’m not sure Thomas hit it quite on the screws, as David Feherty described it, but it was still a thrill to watch. The perfect shot shape for that hole. Then, my gosh, that drive on 18. Thomas smoked it, but it had no business staying dry. Thomas later called it a 50/50 ball — nope, it was more like a 20/80, maybe even a 10/90. If his Titleist doesn’t catch that little upslope in the fairway, it keeps veering left into the water, which could have quite easily cost him the tournament.
Jonathan Wall, managing equipment editor (@jonathanrwall): Justin Thomas called it “probably one of the best rounds of my life, tee-to-green.” It’s almost impossible to disagree after he gained more than 12 shots on the field from tee to green for the week. Everyone knows Thomas for his swagger on the course and his ability to pull off incredible shots in crunch time, but he’s pound-for-pound one of the best ball-strikers on the planet. The entire week was a reminder that Thomas is nearly impossible to beat when he’s firing on all cylinders.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: The heart he showed in his play and in victory remarks. Growing up before our eyes.
Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier) His honesty about having to focus on his mental well-being in recent weeks. He spoke about “talking to people” in an effort to address the way he was feeling, and it sounded like taking that first step — reaching out to someone — was the most difficult part. Credit to him for sharing.
2. A week after battling Bryson DeChambeau down the stretch at Bay Hill, Westwood continued his fine form at Sawgrass, taking a two-shot lead into the final round before coming up just short. Regardless of what happens between now and September, has Westy already earned himself a spot on the 2021 European Ryder Cup team?
Melton: If he keeps this stellar play up going into the summer, I don’t think there’s an way he’s left off the team. Already a member of seven (!) winning European teams, Westy would be a terrific veteran presence on that squad.
Sens: Oh, he will be on that team. Book it.
Bastable: Oh, hell yeah. And send him out first, like William Wallace doing his thing. Westwood’s good form is no flash in the pan. He’s been golfing his ball beautifully for a long run now. Don’t forget, he won in Abu Dhabi early in 2020. Would be so fun to see him battling in Wisconsin — and who knows, maybe in Italy in 2023, too!
Wall: Padraig Harrington would be insane to leave him off. The team needs some veteran leadership and Westwood brings that and more to the table. He very well could earn a spot outright the way he’s playing.
Bamberger: You telling me there are 12 players more deserving than he? Not possible.
Dethier: He’s now back inside the top 20 in the world, which is incredible. Westwood’s entire approach has been aspirational the last two weeks, not only in the golf he has played but the way he has responded to coming so close and falling just short.
3. Whether or not the Players should be considered a major is not a debate we’ll settle in this forum, but here’s a related topic: Given the strength of field and toughness of the Stadium Course, where does the Players rank against the majors in terms of difficulty to win?
Sens: Two words. Craig Perks. Ok. A few more words. It’s an impressive title but you can’t compare it to the difficulty of winning a major because, well, a major isn’t on the line.
Bastable: That sounds like the assessment of someone who’s never played 16, 17 and 18 on the Stadium Course with $2.7 million on the line! Look at Thomas on Sunday — he looked to be in total control, then almost blew it with one (solid!) swing on the 18th hole. Put another way: With a one-shot lead to protect, would you rather play 16, 17 and 18 at Augusta National, or the final three holes at Sawgrass? If you’re the nervy type, your answer is not likely to be the latter.
Melton: Above the PGA, but below all the rest. The U.S. Open is a brute each year, slipping on a green jacket requires nerves that not many mortals possess, and the Open is always a battle not only against the course, but the elements as well. Sawgrass’ finishing stretch (and fat paycheck) makes it a nervy Sunday, but still not quite on the level of the other three.
Wall: I’m with Z. It’s probably on the same line as the PGA Championship, but no way I’m ranking it above the Masters, U.S. Open or the Open Championship. It’s a great tournament on the schedule. Just feels wrong comparing the event and venue to the real four majors.
Bamberger: You can iron it to death. You don’t have to hit driver long and in play. It’s a different kind of test.
Dethier: Different test is right. It’s a testament to Thomas’ approach game that he won, and a testament to DeChambeau’s off-speed pitches that he contended. Statistically, there’s a certain randomness to contending at the Players that puts it in a different category in my mind — but everyone is playing the same course and there’s no question that the field is major in strength. It’s behind the majors, but it’s a hell of a show.
4. Ahead of the Players, Bryson DeChambeau said he was thinking of playing the 18th at Sawgrass by hitting his tee shot left and into the adjacent 9th fairway, which would eliminate some of the difficulty of the water on the closing hole. The PGA Tour nixed it, making left of the lake internal out of bounds on 18. How likely are we to see more on-the-fly course setup decisions by the Tour to neutralize either DeChambeau’s distance or creativity?
Melton: It depends on whether or not Bryson tips his hand. If he had kept his strategy a secret, nothing would have stopped him from bombing the ball to the 9th all week.
Sens: Bryson learned from that. He won’t be letting his strategy slip in advance, so we won’t be seeing much prevent defense from the Tour. Likely none at all.
Wall: I still feel like this was an opportunity missed by the Tour to bring some additional eyeballs to the telecast during the week. Bryson is already cagey about changes he’s making to his gear and swing, so I’m hoping he keeps quiet and throws the Tour a couple massive curveballs along the way. Keep ‘em on their toes.
Bastable: Yeah, agree with Wall. Also, here’s the thing: No way that route makes the hole easier this week. First, hitting a tee shot over to 9 is no gimme. There’s a sizable tree that Bryson would have needed to negotiate. From there, he’d have faced a blind shot over corporate skyboxes to a green fronted by water. I’m not buying that’s an easier play than a wedge from the 18th fairway. So in short, yeah, it’s silly that the Tour banned the option. Will we see more of this? Yes, more than likely.
Bamberger: It’s fine for the course to be set-up as the architect meant it to be played.
Dethier: In general, in-course O.B. should be avoided at all costs. In this specific case, I was disappointed not to see DeChambeau tempted by the play in competition. Also, for safety reasons I understand why the Tour legislated the way they did. All three of those things can be true at the same time. I just hope Bryson keeps thinking outside the box and that we’re surprised when he plays diagonally at some point.
5. After missing the cut by 10 shots at the Players, Rory McIlroy gave a startlingly candid answer when asked what has most frustrated him about his recent struggles. In short, McIlroy said it’s the fact that his problems have stemmed from trying to add speed to keep up with a certain long bomber. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open,” he said. “I think a lot of people saw that and were like, ‘Whoa, if this is the way they’re going to set golf courses up in the future, it helps. It really helps.’” McIlroy added: “Probably like October of last year, I was doing a little bit of speed training, started getting sucked into that stuff, my swing got flat, long and too rotational.” How many other players at the top of the game — whether they’d admit or not — do you suppose have been influenced by DeChambeau to the degree that McIlroy has been?
Melton: More than we think. DeChambeau’s brand of play is dominating media discourse, and with fans back and clamoring to see the long ball, it will take tremendous discipline not to try to emulate him.
Sens: Agreed. Rory is no short knocker. The fact that even a bomber of his scale has been swayed by Bryson suggests speaks volumes. There have got to be many others out there like him, whether they can muster Rory’s honesty or not.
Wall: Plenty! Just look at the players who’ve started using graphite shafts in their irons and putter. These gear accessories were almost non-existent before DeChambeau came along. Hell, he merely hinted about bringing a 47- or 48-inch driver to the Masters and players started testing both lengths in droves. He’s a major influence on Tour, from an equipment perspective, whether players want to admit it or not.
Bastable: Oh, Rory! Have to say, his remarks left me mystified. One of the greatest drivers the game has ever known felt compelled to pop open the hood and move around parts to keep up with a guy with three fewer majors titles? Hard to figure. Rory doesn’t need more distance, just more consistency. Are others similarly influenced? No doubt. But I can guarantee you there’s at least one player who’s not: Dustin Johnson.
Bamberger: I doubt many at all. Bryson’s length gain came by changing his body. How many would want to do that or could, to anything like that degree?
Dethier: Bryson has affected plenty of players, but many of them just on the margins. McIlroy hits it so far that he seemed resistant to ceding the distance title to DeChambeau, but for golfers like Justin Thomas or Paul Casey, who hit it far but not the farthest, keeping up with Bryson is unattainable, so they can chase speed on their own agenda. Hopefully McIlroy gets back to becoming the best golf version of himself.
6. The island-green par-3 17th at Sawgrass wreaked havoc, as it so often does, at this Players; in the first round alone, the hole sunk 35 tee shots, Byeong Hun An made an 11 and one group of three when 3-for-3 with water balls. Put on your designer cap and give us an architectural tweak that would make the hole even better.
Melton: Take away the walkway behind the green and make it a true island green. “Peninsula green” is a more accurate description as things stand now.
Bamberger: That’s great, Z. With you!
Sens: Look back at some older clips. Even from Tiger’s better-than-most putt. There used to be a wider collar and taller grass fringing the green. I’d bring that back. A number of reasonably good shots this week trickled right through that firm apron. Or rolled straight off the back. It would be fairer and more interesting to see those shots hang up on the edge and require a chip rather than a third from the drop zone.
Wall: Add an additional tee box that forces players to take an entirely different angle to attack the green. I’m all for adding some fresh chaos to one of the best holes on Tour.
Bastable: Water hazard in the middle of the green. Call it The Donut.
Dethier: Make the tee box an island, too. That shot should feel as isolating as possible.