PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — This Players Championship, here on the eve of its finale, feels like a changing-of-the-guard event. But not one of those orderly ceremonies, like you see at Buckingham Palace. This one is kind of weird.
There’s no Tiger, no Phil, no Rickie, no Bryson here. They were never in the field, as we’ve known for days.
But what about Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka or Xander Schauffele? Might they fill the void?
They all missed the cut.
You already know that Sunday night did not close with a new Players Championship champion. Thursday’s rain, working hand-in-hand with Friday’s rain and Saturday’s rain, killed any chance of that happening. Why the PGA Tour can’t get a weather agreement with Mother Nature Inc. is hard to fathom. It has deals with most everybody else. But there it is.
The new champion — likely a player* who has never won a Players or a major — will be decided at the end of a long Monday. The third round should finish Monday morning. The fourth round will be played Monday afternoon, in threesomes, off two tees and without the customary grandeur this tournament prizes.
What a way for a fella to win $3.6 million.
Not that Anirban Lahiri, Harold Varner, Sebastian Munoz, Cameron Smith, Sam Burns, Tom Hoge and other contenders are complaining.
*Yes, Francesco Molinari, Sergio Garcia and Shane Lowry** have all won Grand Slam events, and Garcia has won a Players. Any of them could win. But they are long shots.
**Shane Lowry, Irish winner of the 2019 British Open at Royal Portrush, made a hole-in-one on Sunday on 17 — a par-3, with an island green surrounded by a lake. Soon after, and with Lowry still on the course, PGA Tour officials, in concert with the good people at PGA Tour catering, generously put out a cooler filled with slender 12-ounce cans of Michelob Ultra on the mock-wood floor of the press-building café. Taped to the cooler was a sign: “Michelob Ultra courtesy of Shane Lowry. Thanks!!”
Well, thanks indeed, but it could be noted that Lowry was on the course at the time. Also, have you seen this Shane Lowry? He doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who is going to sweat over the carb-count of his preferred beer.
So, yes, things are a little weird at this Players. Well, what did you expect for the PGA Tour’s so-called signature event in 2022? Men’s professional golf has been running on weirdness for two years now.
You know: the pandemic; Tiger Woods terrifying car crash last year; the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots and how they caused the relocation of this year’s PGA Championship from a Trump course, in New Jersey, to Southern Hills, in Tulsa; the many reports about the prospect of an international tour, backed by the Saudi ruling class, is attempting to challenge the PGA Tour; the immolation of Mickelson, the reigning PGA Championship winner, by way of his pointed comments about both the PGA Tour and this Saudi-backed tour.
Enter your leader, through the 47 holes he has played, the hugely amiable Anirban Lahiri of India, age 34. His father is a gynecologist. We note that because it’s unusual. Justin Thomas’ father is a golf pro. That’s more common.
Lahiri is nine under par. Burns, who has played 45 holes, is seven under. He is playing the role, in this changing-of-the-guard theme, formerly played by Sean O’Hair. O’Hair was a quiet, hardworking, hard-on-himself mega-talent who caught Tiger’s eye. Burns is a quiet, hardworking, hard-on-himself mega-talent who caught Tiger’s eye. In 2007, when O’Hair had a one-shot lead in the Players through three rounds over Mickelson, it was an open secret on Tour that Woods was rooting for O’Hair in the finale. No saying who Woods is rooting for this year. He’s not doing any TV commentary, not that he would give much away if he did.
We can guess who Rory Sabbatini is rooting for. Lahiri! Sabbatini was paired with Lahiri last week at Bay Hill, when the third round was played on its traditional day, Saturday. Sabbatini withdrew from the tournament after 13 holes with a knee injury but walked the remaining five holes with Lahiri, just to keep him company. That’s a rare thing to happen — if it has ever happened! Sabbatini said later that he would have only done that for 20 percent of the players on Tour. Sabbo is a particular guy.
Earlier on Sunday, Lahiri was asked about this odd-couple friendship. He said, “I came over early in 2016 and I played with Sabbo a few times. Sabbo’s Sabbo. There’s no one else like him. I kind of enjoy that. I played a lot of golf in Europe and Asia. Spent a lot of times with Aussies and South Africans, they’re all different, they have their own quirks, they have their own humor. More sarcasm, a little drier. I get it. I think Sabbo and I hit it off well in that sense.”
Lahiri spent several holes at Bay Hill trying to get Sabbatini to withdraw. He could see he wasn’t right.
“I tried to tell him on the 9th to go home. He wouldn’t listen to me. On the 11th I called an official. He was like, ‘I can’t force him.’ But Sabbo was just adamant that he wouldn’t leave me out there.”
This guy is such a gem. Asked to compare the courses of his boyhood in India with TPC Sawgrass, he said this:
“I’ll invite you to come and play the courses I played growing up! It doesn’t compare.
“We do have some good golf courses in India, don’t get me wrong, but I grew up playing on Army golf courses. The first junior event I played at the age of 10 at Royal Calcutta Golf Club was the first time I ever played on a no-preferred-lie golf course. That’s what I grew up on, greens rolling about 6 [on the Stimpmeter] on a good day. This doesn’t really compare.”
The Royal Calcutta fairways were mown. Lahiri had never seen such a thing before. He asked his father to buy him a 7-wood, to help him get the ball in the air.
As for TPC Sawgrass, well, we all know what Hogan said about it: There are no 7-wood shots at TPC Sawgrass. But you do have to take some spin off the ball playing 17. Make a 1, but the press room some beer. Win the $3.6 mil, call a Grant Thornton advisor immediately.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com