The great PLAYERS riddle: the bizarre boom/bust records of the leading contenders at TPC Sawgrass

Pete Dye’s Stadium Course is one of the great examples of modern golf architecture, but the world’s elite have always had a somewhat strained relationship with it.

The creation of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass only ever had one aim in mind: to produce a perfect, and permanent, home for THE PLAYERS Championship.

Within that demand were two imperatives: a stunning tournament test and a backdrop that wowed TV audiences whilst also giving galleries unparalleled and unprecedented views across the course.

Traditionalists remain horrified at the result, appalled by the kid-in-a-sweet-shop approach to water hazards in particular.

Others, however, are less sniffy.

There's absolutely no doubt that architect Pete Dye went full-on, utilising the digger truck with gloriously gay abandon.

To glean the essence of the course, it's easiest to look at the par-3 17th hole, which is effectively the entire course in microcosm.

Old-timers loathe the island green (even pedantically pointing out that it isn't actually an island); the majority accept that it is a stunning amphitheatre for the crowds, generates superb television, is a brutal test for the field, and provides wild excitement on the back nine Sunday.

Contrived? Absolutely. But job done? Yes to that as well. 

Beyond agonised discussion of design principles, what has always been clear is that the Sawgrass examination is one the finest players in the world have never quite got to grips with (no mere coincidence maybe).

The tournament has one of, if not the, strongest fields of the season so it is inevitable that some of the cream will always rise near the top.

But the past records of the very finest golfers is not just patchy in contrast with others venues - they are almost routine in their wild volatility.

Let's take a closer look at this year's leading contenders who have played here more than once. Strap in, it's a rollercoaster ride.

Rory McIlroy 

After three trips to Sawgrass, McIlroy must have hated the place. He'd failed to make a weekend and his management group at the time were involved in a bizarre fight with the tournament that saw him, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood boycott the 2011 renewal.

He shortly afterwards left the group and, with it, broke his Stadium Course curse, finishing in the top 12 every year from 2013 to 2016.

McIlroy celebrates victory in the 2019 PLAYERS Championship
McIlroy celebrates victory in the 2019 PLAYERS Championship

But the variations were far from over. He won in 2019, but he missed the cut the year before and again on defence last year.

Jon Rahm

The Spaniard's introduction to Dye's creation gave him everything in just three laps: he opened with a 68 to sit just one back of the lead and then carved a catastrophic 82 on Saturday to miss the 54-hole cut.

A year later it was almost as bad: another 68 to open and then a Saturday 77 on his way to T63rd.

Then, in 2019, yet another curious week. This time he excelled in the third round, a 64 giving him the 54-hole lead, and instead imploded on Sunday (a 76 to finish T12th).

He maintained the trend last year, lying fifth with 18 holes to play before a 73 saw him slip back to tied ninth.

Patrick Cantlay 

Pure Sawgrass. On debut in 2017, and again in 2018, he spent the first 54 holes in the top 10, but both times he hurtled backwards on Sunday. He did, at least, tick off two top 25s.

In 2019 and last year? Missed cuts.

Justin Thomas 

In both his first two appearances he thrashed brilliant 65s. On debut to be in contention heading into the final round (although he fell back on Sunday) and in 2016 to finish fast for a top five. Lats year he closed 64-68 to win.

In-between? Three starts when he was never remotely in the hunt.

Xander Schauffele

Yet more feast or famine at Sawgrass, almost comically so.

His debut in 2018 was spectacular: he broke par every day, went sub-70 three times, and finished second.

On return in 2019 he packed his bags on Friday night and the same thing happened 12 months ago.

Hideki Matsuyama

Seven visits have reaped a five top 25 finishes and two missed cuts. Nothing in-between. So typical and really quite weird.

Dustin Johnson

The good news for the World No. 1 is that he's getting to grips with Sawgrass, but boy did he need to.

It took him three visits to make the cut and eight trips to land a first top 30 which is outrageous given his excellence everywhere else in the world.

His recent appearances have shown promise (T12th in 2017, T17th in 2018, when he shared the first round lead, and tied fifth in 2019) but he was T48th last year.

Webb Simpson 

If you think this endless pattern of peaks and troughs is silly, you're not the only one and it's far from over.

Simpson has played the event 11 times. Seven times he failed to make the top 60. The other four times he made the top 20 every single time.

And in 2018 he was just sensational, leading by five at halfway, by seven after 54 holes, and completing the win four shots clear of the field.

Tony Finau

Lanky powerhouse Finau is something of a trend buster, but only somewhat.

In truth, he's never really got to grips with the test. Five visits in, he's missed three cuts and only oncee made the top 50 when T22nd in 2019.

Jordan Spieth 

This is more like it: big boom followed by enormous bust.

Back in 2014 Spieth seemed to take to Sawgrass like a duck to water, opening with rounds of 67-66, sharing the 54-hole lead and finishing fourth.

Since then, he's missed four cuts and twice failed to make the top 40. Less duck to water than balls in water.

READ MORE: Titles, Controversies, Injuries, Comebacks: Hall of Famer Tiger Woods' Rollercoaster Career

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