Since 1974, only three Europeans have won The Players Championship.
Sandy Lyle beat Jeff Sluman in a playoff in 1987.
Sergio Garcia also won in a playoff in 2008 over Paul Goydos.
And Sweden’s Henrik Stenson won by four shots in 2009.
Nobody else has scratched: not Nick Faldo; not Luke Donald; not Lee Westwood (all of whom have been ranked No.1 in the world), or Padraig Harrington, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros or Jose Maria Olazabal (all of whom won multiple American majors).
Colin Montgomery, one of the greatest iron players in history, hasn’t won it, nor has Graeme McDowell or Martin Kaymer (both of whom have won major championships on American soil). Donald, Langer, Harrington, Monty and Ian Poulter have finished second, but that’s it. Australia has more past Players Championship winners than the whole of Europe, and Trinidad and Tobago has as many past champions as Great Britain and Ireland.
“I don’t know why they haven’t won more,” Pete Dye the architect of the diabolical stadium course said in a phone interview. “It certainly wasn’t designed to favor one country or one continent over another, and I think you’ve seen that by the number of international winners. There just haven’t been many from Europe.”
So, why is a guy from Northern Ireland the runaway favorite this week?
Despite losing in a playoff in Charlotte last week, Rory McIlroy is on everyone’s short list to contend and possibly win this week in Ponte Vedra, despite the abysmal history of his European compatriots at this event. The reason is simple: McIlroy is the No.1 player in the world who has played seven events on the PGA Tour and European Tour this year and been out of the top-5 once. That streak includes a win, three seconds and a third. Nobody on the planet is playing better.
But it’s more than that. McIlroy is the favorite at Sawgrass because of how he plays. He hits it high, straight and impossibly long. His 3-wood tee shot in the playoff at Quail Hollow cruised past the best drives D.A. Points and Rickie Fowler could muster, and his iron shots look like they are reentering from space.
Unlike a lot of golfers who have one or two shots that they can hit under pressure, Rory has a full compliment. He can hit it high, low and somewhere in between, turning it left, right or hitting it straight on command with every club in his bag.
The only semi-weak spot is a putter that can get squirrely at times, as it did down the stretch in Charlotte. But TPC Sawgrass is designed for precision in the long game, and serviceability on the greens. A player who can dial in full shots, play from the fairway, and hit his approaches to exact locations usually wins.
That is why Tiger Woods has had limited success at The Players Championship. His one win – “Better than most” — was more than a decade ago, before the swing changes and the knee surgeries, when he still placed a premium in hitting fairways.
“It’s a course where you have to be hitting from the fairways so I don’t mind sacrificing some distance as long as I am achieving that,” McIlroy said, a sign of maturity and understanding of the golf course. He has put a 2-iron in his bag and will use it on many of the tees.
“I think there are about three courses we play all year where the venue is as much a part of the week as the golfers, and this is one of them,” he said. “Augusta, St Andrews whenever the (British) Open is there, and here. I think that’s probably it.”
Then, in typical boyish fashion, he smiled and said, “It’s a tournament I’d love to win.”
The way he’s been playing and the maturity he has shown, he is certainly the man to beat.