Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 8, 2014

The Players Starts With A Few Surprises

No one wins a golf tournament on Thursday. Perhaps once a season on the PGA Tour a player rockets into the lead with a great opening round, only to completely lose his game the following day and fail to make the cut. As noted here a couple of months ago one of the hardest things in golf is winning a tournament by leading wire to wire ( Conversely since a tournament is four rounds, there is plenty of time for a pro who just manages to scrape his way around the links on Thursday to put together three solid rounds over the remainder of the event and wind up holding the trophy.

So the odds are pretty good that by Sunday evening, as the sun starts to slide toward the western horizon in Ponte Vedra, the final leader board at this year’s Players Championship will look a lot different from what it did after all 144 golfers in the field finished their first walk around the famous TPC Sawgrass layout. But for a day at least, the first page of the Players’ leader board carried the names of three European stars whose likeness have all but appeared on the side of milk cartons, so long have they been missing from the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour.

There as part of an eight-player logjam in 4th place at 5-under par was Spain’s Sergio Garcia. At age 34 El Nino may need to think about getting a new nickname. Yet the reaction of some fans is surprise that Garcia isn’t older, since he burst onto the scene as a 19-year old first year professional and thus seems to have been around forever. That was way back in 1999, when he won in just his sixth start as a pro at the Irish Open and later that summer nearly outdueled Tiger Woods down the stretch at the PGA Championship. A decade and a half later Garcia is at or near the top of every golf pundit’s list of “best players who have never won a major.” He’s come close, notably in 2002 when he finished in the top ten at all four of the major tournaments. Five years later he lost a playoff to Padraig Harrington at the Open Championship after failing to get up and down from a greenside bunker at the 18th at Carnoustie.

But since that disappointment Garcia has more missed cuts than top-ten’s at the majors, and after the 2012 Masters he openly doubted his ability to win on the game’s biggest stages. Later that summer he won the Wyndham Championship, his first PGA Tour victory in more than four years. But at the time both his personal life and his golf game were going into a tailspin. A breakup with his long-time girlfriend and an inability to make many putts seemed to put Garcia under a permanent dark cloud.

But perhaps better days are finally at hand. He is reportedly happy with a new partner, and he won on the Asian Tour late last year and on the European Tour in January. He knows how to play TPC Sawgrass, having claimed the Players title in 2008 and matched Woods for three rounds last spring before a Sunday meltdown that included a quadruple-bogey, double-bogey finish. Teeing off on #10 Thursday he made three birdies in the first four holes, played the 17th and 18th in six fewer shots than in that debacle last May, and finished with a fine round of 67.

Joining Garcia at 5-under after Thursday’s start was England’s Lee Westwood. At 41 Westy is one of the older members on that hated “best players who have never” list. Yet there was a time when a major title seemed his for the taking. From the Open Championship in 2009 through the same event one year later Westwood finished either second or third in four out of five majors. He still can contend, having finished third at last year’s Open Championship and seventh last month at the Masters, but the clock is likely ticking on Westwood’s major hopes. While he’s won forty professional tournaments all around the world, he hasn’t lifted a trophy on U.S. soil since 2010, and hadn’t won on the European Tour since early 2012. The latter drought ended last month when he nearly lapped the field, winning the Maybank Open by seven strokes. So perhaps his game is coming into form. On Thursday he managed the difficult Pete Dye layout perfectly, dropping nary a stroke while recording five birdies.

But surely the most surprising name on the first round leader board was the one atop it. Martin Kaymer was the European Tour’s Rookie of the Year in 2007. Easily the best golfer to hail from Germany since two-time major winner, now Champion’s Tour stalwart Bernhard Langer, Kaymer topped the European Tour’s money list three years later. That same season he ascended to number one in the World Rankings, and notched his first major title by overcoming a four shot deficit at the start of the final round of the 2010 PGA Championship, eventually defeating Bubba Watson in a playoff.

But just when it seemed like golf fans would be talking about Kaymer on any given Sunday afternoon for years to come, he became just another journeyman touring pro. He followed his dynamic 2010 campaign with a European Tour win in January 2011, but then didn’t claim another title until November of that year. Save for a 2012 win on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour, that was the last time Kaymer tasted victory. Since then the former world #1 fell out of the top fifty in the rankings. Since winning the PGA title he has not only failed to crack the top ten at any major tournament, but also has only two finishes higher than thirty-first.

So no one, perhaps least of all Kaymer, expected what happened on Thursday. He started on the 10th and made the turn just two under. He was hitting fairways and greens, staying out of trouble, putting together a nice round. Then on the front nine Kaymer’s putter came alive. Over his final nine holes he recorded seven birdies. At the par-5 9th he was over the green in two with a hybrid from the fairway, leaving a simple up and down for the ninth birdie of his round and an opening 63 that matched the course record. His 29 on the front side was the first time anyone had bettered 30 on either nine at TPC Sawgrass. Later Kaymer said that after two years of focusing constantly on swing changes he had just “stopped thinking” and started playing.

It’s only Thursday, of course. By late Sunday perhaps we’ll be talking about young Jordan Spieth, who was among the group at 67; or the remarkable comeback of Adam Scott after an ugly opening 77. But for one day at least, three familiar stars from Europe reminded golf fans that they really hadn’t gone missing after all.

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