Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 15, 2017

From An Unlikely Leader Board, The Unlikeliest Wins

One of the most memorable moments in the more than four decades long history of the Players Championship occurred in 2002, when after 54 holes unknown New Zealander Craig Perks sat in second place, one shot out of the lead. In the media center after his round Perks was asked repeatedly who among the long list of better known golfers near the top of the leader board he thought had the best chance of prevailing the following day. Finally the exasperated Kiwi looked up at the assembled press corps and asked, “why not me?” Perks then ran the table at the TPC at Sawgrass, playing the course’s treacherous three hole closing stretch in just nine strokes. He chipped in for an eagle three on the par-5 16th, holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th with its signature island green, then chipped in again at the par-4 home hole, this time to save par and cement a two-stroke victory. Why not me, indeed.

The 2002 Players was his only win in 202 PGA Tour starts during a playing career that ended five years later, but the improbable triumph by Perks in a tournament that always features one of the strongest fields of the year was a reminder that like any sport golf can sometimes be unpredictable.

Memories of Craig Perks came flooding back as this year’s Players unfolded last weekend, with nearly the entire first page of the leader board filled with the names of unlikely contenders in a tournament that had 48 of the top 50 golfers in the world included in the pairings that teed off in Thursday’s first round. Fifteen years ago the questions posed to Perks were understandable. In 2002 there were fourteen golfers in or tied for one of the top ten spots with one round to play. That number included seven players then ranked among the top thirty in the world. It also included six who had either already won at least one major championship or who would subsequently add the cherished honorific “major winner” to their resume.

In contrast this year’s leader board heading into Sunday was woefully short on superstars. The dozen golfers filling the top ten positions included just two ranked in the world’s top thirty – Sergio Garcia and European Tour star Alex Noren. South African Louis Oosthuizen, victor at the 2010 Open Championship, and recent Masters winner Garcia were the only two major titleholders on the board’s first page. If a decade and a half ago the memorable question was “why not me,” surely this year’s query of the moment was “who are these guys?”

While not quite as anonymous as Perks, the 54 hole co-leaders were not exactly household names. J.B. Holmes has won four times in a PGA Tour career that began in 2005, most recently two years ago at the Shell Houston Open. Kyle Stanley, who like Holmes was 9-under par through three rounds and one shot ahead of Oosthuizen, posted his sole Tour victory five years ago in Phoenix. Stanley’s victory was notable for the way it was a mirror image of his previous tournament. One week earlier at the Farmers Insurance Open, he led by six shots at the start of the final round and was still ahead by three when he stood on the 18th tee. One ugly triple-bogey later Stanley found himself in a tie. He then completed the collapse by losing the playoff to Brandt Snedeker. But he bounced back and overcame a deficit of eight shots over the final walk around TPC Scottsdale, in the process overtaking Spencer Levin who was having his own version of a final round meltdown.

Neither Holmes nor Stanley did anything on Sunday to enhance their limited reputations. Both began with a bogey, and the day didn’t improve for either of them. Stanley closed with a 75 to finish in a tie for fourth. Holmes no doubt would have been happy to sign for the same score as Stanley. Instead he came to the 17th already five over on the day, and then proceeded to rinse two balls, taking a total of eight strokes to find the cup on the par-3. A double-bogey on the 18th closed out a round of 84 which dropped the third-round co-leader all the way down to a tie for 41st.

One of the players tied with Holmes at the end of the tournament was Phil Mickelson, his hopes done in by a third round 78. Such was the story for most of the instantly recognizable names. Jordan Spieth, perhaps still feeling the aftereffects of his spring break partying in the Bahamas, failed to make it to the weekend. Spieth’s fellow spring breaker Rickie Fowler was even par through three rounds, then shot 79 on Sunday. That final round score was at least one stroke better than world number three and defending champion Jason Day. As with those other stars, Garcia tumbled down the leader board on the final day thanks to a 78. While avoiding a really bad number, Rory McIlroy played gingerly after reinjuring his back and managed no better than 71 in any of his four rounds. One of the few stars to play well on Sunday was Dustin Johnson, who shot 68; but he began the day two over par for the tournament and far off the pace.

While the stars were absent and the journeymen at the top of the leader board were imploding, someone still had to lift the crystal trophy as the sun sank toward the horizon, and the winner’s identity was almost as stunning as in 2002. This was not Si Woo Kim’s first PGA Tour victory. A win at the Wyndham Championship last August got him on the board. But since then he had done little to suggest that he was ready to tame a difficult golf course and beat one of the best fields of the year. Kim arrived in Ponte Vedra having played eighteen events in the PGA Tour season that began last October. He had missed as many cuts as he had made at seven, and had also withdrawn from four tournaments. He had just one top-10 finish, at the CIMB Classic, the second event of the season. He also ranked well below average in all the Tour’s main statistical categories except for play around the greens.

On Sunday that one strength was all he really needed. Starting the day two shots behind Holmes and Stanley, Kim missed ten greens in his final round, but got up and down for par every time. That perfect ten-for-ten performance in scrambling, combined with three birdies on the front nine, made for a bogey-free 3-under par round of 69 that left him three shots clear of Oosthuizen and a suddenly resurgent Ian Poulter. The win puts the 21-year old Kim into the tournament’s history books as the youngest winner ever of the Players Championship.

The first player from Asia and with Garcia only the second from outside the U.S. to win twice on the PGA Tour before his 22nd birthday, Kim now has a five-year Tour exemption and a spot in the next three editions of the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship. What he isn’t exempt from is South Korea’s mandatory military service requirement. To avoid having to leave the Tour at some point for as much as two years to meet that obligation, Kim will need to win either an Olympic gold medal or a major title. Unfortunately for its new champion and despite the unending debate about its status, the Players is still not a major. But it remains a tournament that every so often gives golf fans an utterly unexpected ending.

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