PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Such are the times in golf that so much attention at The Players Championship is on a player who is not even part of the strongest field of the year.
Stranger still is the player in question is not Tiger Woods.
Cameron Smith is a reminder of the fractured world of professional golf. He is the defending champion of the PGA Tour’s premier tournament, not able to return this year because the tour has suspended him for joining Saudi-funded LIV Golf.
And it’s not just Smith.
The runner-up a year ago was Anirban Lahiri, followed by Paul Casey. They are among 36 players who have defected to LIV Golf, and they are among 17 players who were part of the windy, wild weekend at the TPC Sawgrass last year.
The Australian flag still flies outside the clubhouse in honour of the champion’s home country. Smith’s pitching wedge is on display in the clubhouse, part of the tradition for the winner to leave a club that was meaningful in his win.
But there’s no Smith — or his mullet — even though the No. 5 player in the world has lived down the street since 2016. He probably can be found this week with a rod and reel, not a wedge and a putter.
“I think it’ll be a pretty quiet week on the water,” Smith told Golf Digest two weeks ago at LIV Golf’s opening event in Mexico.
Even at the richest event on the PGA Tour — a $25 million purse with $4.5 million going to the winner — the subject of LIV Golf is never too far away.
Smith is the first defending champion to miss The Players since Woods in 2014, who was recovering from the first of five back surgeries. Woods isn’t playing this week either, deciding to rest his battered legs ahead of the Masters.
“Yes, it’s awkward,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said. “But you know, ultimately that’s a decision he made, and we’ve got an unbelievable field here this week and a history and tradition that one of these 144 is going to go seek to get.”
The Players still has the strongest field so far this year, helped by the 144-man field. But by pure numbers, it can be difficult to distinguish between The Players and the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week at Bay Hill, or from the Genesis Invitational at Riviera a few weeks back.
Bay Hill had 43 of the top 50 players in the world ranking. The Players has 44 of the top 50, the difference being Harold Varner III (another LIV player) dropped out of the top 50 this week.
“It’s not going to be as big a gap as it maybe has been in the past,” Jon Rahm said, though he still noted the increase in prize money ($25 million), world ranking points (the most in golf except for majors) and FedEx Cup points.
“And then the legacy that a tournament has,” Rahm said. “Winning this event is a big step forward to a Hall-of-Fame career … arguably as close as you can get to being a major champion without officially being one. It is our championship. So I think that’s what makes it different to some of the other events.”
Left unchanged is the dynamic nature of the Stadium Course.
It is best known for the island green on the par-3 17th hole and for its history of not favoring a particular style of game. Smith is renowned for his short game, Rory McIlroy is built on power and Justin Thomas a blend of distance and his ability to flight the golf ball with his irons.
“I don’t have a great track record here at this event. It doesn’t take much research to figure that out,” said Jordan Spieth, who played in the final group in 2014, his first year, and then missed five cuts in his next seven tries. “But I feel like when striking it well, having some momentum and feeling like a little bit of freedom as far as being able to play aggressively here, that’s going to kind of be my strategy this week to try and take advantage.”
The wind roared to life on Wednesday, the final day of practice, and that’s what caused so much havoc a year ago. Imagine aiming at an island some 145 yards away with the wind blowing nearly 40 mph (64 kph).
Xander Schauffele was two shots out of the lead later in the first weather-delayed first round and faced such conditions. He came up 15 yards short of the island and made bogey. On the next hole, he made a quadruple-bogey 8. His caddie still keeps a statistic as a reminder of how much can change so quickly.
“I think he showed me like a first ever to go from the top 10 to outside the top 100 or something like that,” Schauffele said. “My team is all about giving me reality checks, and I got one.”