THE PLAYERS Championship — the PGA Tour’s unofficial fifth major — is complete.
Webb Simpson claimed victory, his biggest since winning the 2012 U.S. Open. But while he was the week’s only champion, he was not the week’s only winner. Justin Thomas didn’t win at Sawgrass, but he did officially claim a title that’s realistically been his for quite some time, now. Tiger Woods, meanwhile, reminded everyone that his comeback is still going strong.
On the other side, big names like Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, and Rory McIlroy couldn’t even manage to play the weekend. Sergio Garcia did, but judging by how Saturday and Sunday went, we wonder if he wishes he didn’t.
The week at TPC Sawgrass had many winners and losers. These were the most notable among them.
Winner: Webb Simpson cruises to PLAYERS win
Simpson picked up his first PGA Tour win in nearly five years. In the process, he had one of the best performances in the history of THE PLAYERS Championship.
It’s one thing to win going away in a week with relatively high scoring. A golfer can have an exceptionally good week, catch some lucky breaks in terms of tee times, and end up running away from the field. But it’s much harder to do that in a week when the scoring is low. The best golfers in the world were putting up scores normally good enough to win this tournament, frequently going away. Yet, Simpson won in convincing fashion, tying the course record with a 63 on Friday in the process.
If this was the first tournament you ever watched, we wouldn’t blame if you for thinking that Simpson is the best golfer in history. He was simply that dominant this week.
Loser: Anticlimactic weekend at Sawgrass
Of course, Simpson’s dominant performance had one drawback to it. A tournament that normally at least has the potential for an exciting finish had essentially no drama over the finishing holes.
Sawgrass offers a lot in the way of short par-threes, reachable par-fives, and even some drivable par-fours. But because there’s a lot of water throughout the course, bad shots are punished. But with Simpson’s lead, he was able to take essentially all of the risk out of the course. Anything close to the hole was simply a bonus. Heck, even a double-bogey on the 72nd hole was nothing more than a minor speedbump.
It’s easy to be impressed with how well Simpson played. But candidly, we wouldn’t have minded if a few of those putts had lipped out to give us more of a suspenseful finish.
Winner: Justin Thomas becomes No. 1 in the world
For 64 weeks, Dustin Johnson held the No. 1 spot in the world. It’s the fifth-longest reign in the history of the ranking, trailing only Tiger Woods (twice), Greg Norman, and Nick Faldo. Thanks to Justin Thomas, that reign is now over.
Thomas made the cut on the number. He played well enough over the weekend to record a high finish, but not well enough to win.
A golfer like Thomas should always think about winning. Any time that doesn’t happen at a big event, it’s natural to be a little disappointed. But even without the win, Thomas’ finish was good enough to officially earn him a title that he’s unofficially held for more a year now — the best golfer in the world.
Loser: Phil Mickelson struggles through first round, misses cut
While low scores were common during the week, Lefty will tell you that Sawgrass still had plenty of bite. Mickelson was effectively out of the tournament after an opening round 79 which included four bogeys and three doubles. The second round was better, but five birdies weren’t enough to offset four bogeys and another double.
Mickelson not only missed the cut, but his 152 over the opening two rounds was tied for the eighth worst of the week score (not counting Sean O’Hair’s withdrawal).
Mickelson has unquestionably enjoyed a nice season in 2018. But his week at Sawgrass was a dud.
Winner: Brooks Koepka makes history on Sunday
Kopeka, who has dealt with injuries for much of the year, teed it up for only the third time in 2018. He didn’t win. But on Sunday, we saw a lot of the same form that won him the U.S. Open a season ago.
Koepka shot a 63 in the final round that included an exceptionally rare albatross on the par-five 16th (which you can see here). The 63 tied the course record and was the best final round in the history of THE PLAYERS.
Winning the 2017 U.S. Open seemed to be a potential breakout for Koepka. Unfortunately, a wrist injury in 2018 has really kept him from building off the big breakout from a season ago. But while he didn’t claim victory, the 2018 PLAYERS should serve as a reminder that Kopeka is as talented as anyone out there.
Loser: Rickie Fowler misses cut at site of greatest win
Fowler was grouped with Mickelson and Woods for the first two days. Much like Mickelson, Fowler just never found his game.
The 2015 champion didn’t quite have the disastrous showing that Lefty did, but he struggled through two bogeys, a double, and only two birdies in the opening round. Six birdies in the second round were not good enough for Fowler, who also made a bogey and consecutive doubles while missing the cut.
Three years ago, Fowler put together one of the most impressive stretches of golf we’ve ever seen at THE PLAYERS to win. But in a week where low scores were there to be had, Fowler too often struggled to get out of his own way.
Winner: Xander Schauffele back on track
Schauffele’s 2018 hadn’t gone especially well. But at Sawgrass, he looked very much like the man who was the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year Award winner in 2017.
Schauffele fired three rounds in the 60s and another 71. Were in not for a stellar performance from Simpson, Schauffele would have finished in a playoff at THE PLAYERS. While so many of the week’s top players were struggling on Sunday, made only one bogey on his way to a 67.
This will definitely be a player to keep an eye on as the PGA Tour gets into its summer season.
Loser: Rory McIlroy
As low as the scoring at Sawgrass was, some of the best golfers in the world really failed to take advantage. That group includes McIlroy. The man who entered the week ranked No. 8 in the world couldn’t make it to the weekend at THE PLAYERS.
Things started relatively well for McIlroy when he fired a one-under 71 in the opening round. By comparison, that was one better than Tiger and four better than Spieth. But McIlroy backed that up with a second round 74, which included four bogeys and a double on the famed 17th.
McIlroy was going to have a hard time winning with an opening round 71. But it was certainly good enough to have him in the mix over the weekend. Obviously, it was not meant to be.
Winner: Did Harold Varner III have a breakout week?
Varner entered the week ranked No. 199 in the world. He had six missed cuts on the year and finished no better than tied for 38th anywhere in 2018. That changed at Sawgrass.
Varner was rock solid all week, firing two rounds in the 60s and all four under par. He finished at 12-under and tied for seventh. Varner has been something of a journeyman through his career. But it’s important to remember that he’s only 27. While guys like Jordan Spieth, McIlroy, and Justin Thomas have broken out in their early 20s, most golfers don’t hit their primes until their late 20s or early 30s.
We’re a long way from saying that this will be a breakout performance. But this certainly gives him a lot of confidence.
Loser: Sergio Garcia loses his form over weekend
Garcia did make the cut at Sawgrass. But it’s fair to say that his week at THE PLAYERS Championship was disappointing. Despite making double and a bogey at the 17th in the opening two rounds, Garcia fired two rounds in the 60s and entered the week at seven-under. Given how strong Simpson was playing, that was probably not good enough to win. But there was every reason to believe that Sergio would compete through the weekend.
Garcia made only three total birdies over his final two rounds, shooting a 75 and 76 in the process. Excluding the golfers who missed the 36 and 54-hole cuts, Garcia finished ahead of only one player.
Sometimes, playing four rounds is a win, especially when it’s a tournament that requires a 54-hole cut. But given how well his week started, we weren’t expecting Sergio playing four rounds to be the only positive that we can really draw from the week.
Winner: Jamie Lovemark turns disastrous start into positive week
In a way, Lovemark was the polar opposite of Sergio this week. He made three bogeys and two doubles in his opening round to shoot a 76. For all intents and purposes, it looked like Lovemark was going to have a short stay at THE PLAYERS.
Then, he shot a second round 67 to make the cut on the number. He followed that up with a 68 on Saturday and another 67 on Sunday, spending much of the final round on the first page of the leaderboard.
By the time things were settled at Sawgrass, Lovemark didn’t come that close to winning. That said, he deserves a ton of credit for hanging around in a tournament that, 18 holes in, looked to be a lost cause.
Loser: Jon Rahm wants his third round back
Rahm was eight-under over his first, second, and fourth rounds at Sawgrass. His third round 77, though, kept him from contention.
Rahm made six bogeys and one double. As strange as this sounds, if Rahm is going to shoot a round like that, we actually expect more over par scores. At least then, Rahm would be making more than just one birdie. Rahm can still be something of a raw golfer. So, we expect some big numbers. But he’s also one of the most talented players in the world. So, we expect more birdies as well.
Regardless of how the 77 happened, or how it should have happened, it provided a rather significant downer on an otherwise solid week.
Winner: Tiger Woods starts slow, finishes on fire
After such a nice start to the year, Woods had gotten a little cold. In his last two tournaments, he finished tied for 32nd at the Masters and tied for 55th at the Wells Fargo Championship. Tiger made the cut on the number at Sawgrass and appeared en route to another pedestrian week.
That changed on Saturday. Tiger fired a 65 in the third round, tying him with Jordan Spieth for the lowest score of the day. He then backed that up with a 69 on Sunday (despite a shaky finish).
Tiger has work to do to get back into the winner’s circle. He certainly has work to do to get to the level that he was at for so long. But if you thought that his comeback efforts had stalled after a bit of a cold patch, the week at Sawgrass did a lot to put those thoughts on hold.