No matter how you look at it, THE PLAYERS Championship 2021 was an enormous success — from the weather to the winner and everything in between. The only thing that could have improved it was no COVID-19, and everyone is trying hard to get rid of that.
The 2021 Players had more fans than any golf tournament, perhaps any sporting event, in the last 12 months. Assuming things continue to go well, the PGA Tour intends to continue to open up golf tournaments to more and more people, so long as the local and state authorities where the tournaments are held will allow it. (You know how they are in California! Expect them to be last.)
Attendance was capped at 20% of 2019, which everyone estimates at between 200,000-250,000 people (because we don’t really know the number). That would mean between 10,000 and 15,000 fans were allowed in each day — or somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 in all.
People were sensible. They were asked to wear face masks and it looked like a majority of them did. When they were sitting around the 17th green, many fans separated themselves from other people. Whatever the actual number was, they created real enthusiasm, a force field of energy. And boy, did the golfers enjoy having them around.
“You start to really feel like you can get into a round, like the fans are kind of with you, willing putts in, that kind of stuff,” Jordan Spieth said early in the tournament. “It felt like just back to normal inside the ropes for us, and I think that players in general really enjoy that.”
“I'm so happy they're back,” said newly minted Players champ Justin Thomas. “The things that I felt out there today and those last couple holes is something that I haven't felt in a really long time because of all this (COVID).”
“I love seeing the fans out. I love interacting with them,” said Bryson DeChambeau. “I think it's fun. I think it's part of the great atmosphere that we live in and play under, and it's great having them cheer me on.”
While players enjoy the fans, they still have to keep their distance because most of them are so young, they will be in the last groups to get the vaccine. The Tour intends to educate all players on the vaccine and will encourage everyone to get it. But enough about that.
The golf was stupendous. The course was in great condition. If you happened to miss the final round, it was like a high wire act with no net and performers falling off and crashing frequently. It was calamitous. It was shocking. It was thrilling. The only things missing were a crew of medics and monster sized band-aids. Of course, if you don’t like golf, I’m sure you had a nice nap on Sunday while the rest of us were spellbound.
At the start of play on Sunday, 47-year-old Englishman Lee Westwood, a winner of 44 worldwide golf tournaments on every continent but Antarctica, led Bryson “The Incredible Bulk” DeChambeau by two shots.
DeChambeau has become the most interesting guy in golf because he gained 40 pounds and studied long drive contestants in order to learn how to maximize the distance he could hit a golf ball. The Saturday and Sunday before the Players, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, DeChambeau hit drives over the lake on the 6th hole that went 370 yards. It was hard to know what he would do at TPC Sawgrass because it’s a much tighter golf course. He did very well, considering.
Behind them, just one more back, were Justin Thomas and Doug Ghim. Thomas is so good that he won a major championship, the PGA, early in his career. I mean he’s only 28, so when I say early, he was about 22 when turned pro in 2014 and about 25 when he won the PGA Championship in 2017.
Thomas was tied with 24-year-old Doug Ghim, playing in his first Players and ranked 257th in the world ( which shows you how messed up the rankings can be, but that’s another story). Starting out those were the main characters.
We knew it was going to be a crazy day when the leaders got to the 4th hole. The tee shots DeChambeau and Westwood hit were ridiculous, to be kind about it.
Westwood hit his tee shot into the water on the right side. He was developing a case of the rights which lasted through the round, so much so that he dropped his driver onto the tee of the 11th at the end of his backswing after hitting a bad shot. But that was later. At the 4th, he found water, took a drop into the rough, hit a shot to more rough, got to the green and finished with a bogey. It was fairly ugly.
That’s when DeChambeau out did him. It looked like he topped one off the tee into the water, although later he said it wasn’t really a top, just a thin. Then, taking a drop and playing from the ladies tee, he took out what is being called his nuclear 4-iron and hit it so far right that people thought he might not be on the golf course any longer. He also cracked the 4-iron so it was out of play.
The ball was eventually located under some trees in the pine straw way to the right of the green. He muffed a shot from there and was still in pine straw. Shotlink, the system that will tell you where the balls have gone and how far shots are hit, said it was hit “to landscaping.” Next, he hit a miraculous shot just to get his ball onto the green and ended up with a six.
This was a “Who are these guys?” moment. Nerves? Pressure? Well, according to all who contended, it was a nervous day. But almost nobody else played shots as nuts as those two did on the 4th. However, one person actually played a worse shot. Brendon Todd. When he got to the 17th, he hit a shank off the tee that went so far right it nearly hit the other island at the 17th, the one with a palm tree and a bed of flowers.
The tournament outcome was defined by Justin Thomas’ play from the 9th through the 12th where he went birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie. With that stretch, he took the lead for the first time after the eagle. Then lost the lead or was tied. Then he took it for the second time when he birdied the 16th.
Now despite all the mishaps and disasters, Westwood was still only one back of Thomas at the end of the day. Had he made par at the 17th instead of bogey, there would have been a playoff, and who knows what the outcome would have been.
DeChambeau, except for the 4th hole, didn’t really squander a lot of shots. But he needed to make up three more shots to tie Thomas and four to beat him, and couldn’t get it done. He only birdied one of the par fives on Sunday, and as he said, his putting was not as good as he would have liked it to be.
Thomas hit some magnificent shots on the par fives. At the 9th, he slung a 5-iron around the trees and got a great bounce for the ball to land on the green. Made birdie. At the 11th, he belted a 4-iron to within 20 feet and made the putt for eagle. At the 16th he curved a screaming, left hooking driver around the corner – he has a hard time hitting shots that go left -- and then smashed a 5-wood to the green with his second shot. That’s where he took the lead again.
He gave himself a scare with a 5-wood off the tee at the 18th. It started rolling left and looked for a while like it might roll into the lake, but it straightened out and Thomas made a par there for the victory. When Westwood bogeyed the 17th, it was apparent that Justin Thomas would be the 2021 Players champion.
With Thomas’ 14th career title, he became one of four golfers since 1960 to win that many times on the PGA Tour before turning 28, joining Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller. It is pretty good company and demonstrates the quality of his game.
Now, we start the countdown to Players 2022 when we think all fans will be back and we hope the noise will be so loud on the 16th and 17th that the ground actually shakes.