Past Players Championship winners enjoyed successful PGA Tour Champions seasons in 2021, as four captured titles – three in successive weeks, with Phil Mickelson’s victory in the Constellation Furyk & Friends coming between victories by K.J. Choi and Lee Janzen.
Mickelson became the first player to win PGA Tour and Champions Tour titles in official-money events on the First Coast. He won four times last season and past Players champions won seven in all – albeit in an expanded season (39 events, as opposed to this year’s 27) that included the remnants of the COVID-plagued 2020 season and 2021.
The last time the elite subset of Players champions won that many times in one season on the PGA Tour Champions was in 2010 when Fred Couples, Nick Price and Fred Funk combined to win seven.
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But it’s a bit more difficult in 2022. With five tournaments left on the schedule, no one who hoisted the winner’s trophy at the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course in the past has won on the Champions Tour.
Stephen Ames (the 2006 Players champion), is the highest-ranked past Players champion on the Charles Schwab Cup race at seventh. The next-highest is Choi at 25th (2011), Janzen (1995) at 32nd and Couples (1984 and 1996) at 58th.
Couples was the highest finisher on the Schwab Cup among past Players champions in 2020-21 but he, Mickelson (2007), Choi and Ames all finished among the top-25 and Janzen was 39th.
Mickelson, Choi and Couples aren’t playing in the Furyk & Friends this week, which begins on Friday at the Timuquana Country Club, so it’s up to Janzen, Funk, Davis Love III (1992 and 2003), David Duval (1999) and Justin Leonard (1998) to try to avoid the first winless Champions Tour season for past Players champions since they were blanked in 2018 and 2019.
There’s no guarantee that success at the TPC Sawgrass will translate to success at Timuquana because of the vast differences between the two courses.
Timuquana, a 98-year-old Donald Ross classic, has only three water hazards in play, wide fairways and undulating, push-up greens that put a premium on pitching, chipping and putting.
The Stadium Course, designed by Pete Dye, is tighter, with smaller greens and trouble on almost every hole. It was a revolutionary design in 1980 when it was completed – which makes Timuquana quaint by comparison.
Timuquana favors big hitters
“This course [Timuquana] is nothing like the Stadium,” Funk said on Tuesday while hitting balls on the range. “In fact, this course is like nothing else in Jacksonville. “You have to control your ball flight. You’ve got to hit fairways. You’ve got to work left and right.”
But Funk said the long hitters will have room – and less fear – at hitting driver off most tees.
“Guys who drive it good and long have an advantage,” he said. “And Phil won at both places but he’s been good enough to win anywhere.”
Janzen said the Timuquana greens, which usually slope back to front, will be even tougher this week because the course recently completed a renovation project. In almost every case, renovated greens are firmer and breezy conditions since Sunday have dried them out.
“The greens are pretty tough,” he said. “The thought about putting it in the wrong spot always keeps you from being more aggressive.”
Janzen said one similarity he sees between the Stadium Course and Timuquana are the “hidden hazards.”
“Pete Dye usually did a good job with that, the intimidation factor of worrying about where you might go … makes you hit it somewhere else where you didn’t want to go either,” he said.
Players victories treasured
The Champions Tour is about celebrating past achievements and the magnitude of winning a Players Championship seems to grow bigger as the years race past.
“Probably the fact that every aspect of your game has to be on,” Ames said. “You can’t miss too many fairways there and get away with it. Other golf courses you could. Your driving had to be on, your iron game had to be on and if you did miss a green the short game had to be imaginative.”
Janzen has won two U.S. Opens but said he worked harder to win the 1995 Players (his score was 5-under, at the time a record for highest by a winner at the Stadium Course) than his Open titles at Baltusrol and the Olympic Club.
“I just remember how hard it was to win … it’s the hardest tournament in the world just to make the cut because it’s the best field,” he said. “Extremely difficult to win, especially the last few holes and how demanding they are with all the disaster waiting for you. That was about as good as I played for four days in a row. I feel like I hit more quality shots from the first hole to the 72nd.”
Funk said winning a Players seems bigger to him 17 years later because of the PGA Tour’s continued efforts to elevate the tournament, such as higher purses ($25 million next year) and continual manicuring of the Stadium Course.
“It’s the Tour’s baby,” Funk said. “They want that one to be the showcase, the one that jumps in purses and everybody’s got to chase them.
Contact Garry Smits at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GSmitter