The 2022 Players was one of the longer, stranger trips in the championship’s history. After a week-plus that included Jay Monahan planting a flag against Phil and the Saudis, Tiger’s HOF induction, and multiple weather delays, Cameron Smith won the $3.6 million winner’s check and the unmixed-reality gold boy trophy. Smith’s play was exemplary, but here are three further thoughts on a consequential weekend and wrap-up of the Players.
When there is disparity in the draw, the wails and moans of the fair police are sounded far and wide. “This tournament is now gimmicky” is the thrust of the argument when these inequities are inflicted on a field, traditionally at The Open. At The Players, the late-early wave of tee times bore the brunt of the dramatic weather patterns, with a three-stroke scoring average difference, a heavy 65 percent of players making the cut coming from the other side of the draw, and a final leaderboard with many players from the easier wave.
Kevin Kisner, who fell on the harder side of the draw, said Saturday, “It’s pure luck and somewhat loss of integrity of the tournament, in my opinion.”
The draw was chance, but once you were out there, it was not pure luck. There were opportunities to play golf shots and distinguish yourself amongst your wave, and Kisner and Keegan Bradley did so to earn top-five finishes. The ideal is always for a championship to identify the best player in the world, but the primary purpose is holding a competition. That competition contains multitudes, and that’s the case in every sport. Bad weather might mitigate the most talented quarterback, a ref might be impacted by a home crowd, an injury might knock out the best team in the country at the worst moment.
How often do we actually get the best player in the world winning? There are innumerable flukes that produce one-hit wonder champions or choppers who crossed the highwire for four days in otherwise undistinguished careers. A draw differential is unfortunate, but if you start pulling at that thread, you’ll end up knotted in a never-ending pursuit of fairness and perfection. The argument this week was it left us with an underwhelming leaderboard for the final 36 holes. Again, that can happen any time, and there are “star” players put in each half of the draw. The trade-off for an unfair draw this week, however, was as memorable a day of competition that this championship has had in several years.
The conditions confounded players late Saturday afternoon, forcing them to hit shots and play in a way that they almost never have to anymore. My colleague Andy Johnson goes into the specifics of how here. There were angry players, incredulous players, exhausted players, and a process of natural selection we rarely see on tour. Taken in toto, it was an entertaining product throughout.
Justin Rose not very happy 😕 pic.twitter.com/3sJF1HQkq0
— Jb UTC (@Jb53849796) March 12, 2022
7 on the par-3 17th 😬 pic.twitter.com/VbLhsQq2qD
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 12, 2022
JT just flighted a 6-iron into a 136-yard hole. Absolutely sick. pic.twitter.com/x0DP14Pqrb
— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) March 12, 2022
It created variety on the board, a spoke in the wheel of many significant championships, most recently at Kiawah, last year’s best major. The modern tour pro roboticism was gone, and something more artistic in execution and adventurous in attitude was demanded. If the trade-off was a few less “stars” around at the wire, then so be it. But no “integrity” was lost. It’s the competitive product acting as it was designed in the conditions provided.
Golf can’t manufacture leaderboards to mimic the OWGR, although the Super Golf League wants to try and the WGCs effort a closed-door party as well. Those WGCs often stink, and they’re mostly gone now. March Madness will deliver a handful of upsets over the next week that may result in a Final Four or Elite 8 game that’s a bore or far from some clash of the titans. The priority is the competitive product along the way, and golf got that on a memorable and illustrative weekend of play. And it also got an OWGR top-10 champion.
Gold boy tech, but useful?
It’s not nearly as impactful, maddening, or ubiquitous as the subjective guessing game of spotting the football in our country’s most popular sport, but it does feel like we should be headed for a future that might include determining more precisely where a ball crosses into a hazard. Given the prevalence of cameras, the technological add-ons imposed on those camera shots, and the high stakes, that feels like a reasonable future world. How that technology might work or if there would be a strong enough desire for it, who knows? I’m an idiot who can’t connect to bluetooth half the time, but it just feels within reach for an area of the game that permits a wiiiide range of subjective interpretations at some critical moments.
A downside is it might deprive us of the kind of interaction we got between Viktor Hovland and Daniel Berger late on Monday. It was a needed spice providing kick at the end of a long and tiring week. If there were actual sides to take after this debate, Hovland continued to win the hearts and minds of fans watching on both sides of the Atlantic, and likely in the locker room as well. It’s a minor footnote in the 2022 Players but is another earned badge Viktor will wear for a while before it’s forgotten.
The Gold Boy phenomenon
It was nice to get back to basics, namely: having a bit of fun with an over-the-top tour promotion. Gold Boy came into our lives when we needed him most, and we’re all—yes, the Tour, NBC, and the jokemakers—the better for it. After a few months considering the heaviness of a sport thrown into upheaval by Saudi blood money, the self-degradation of Phil Mickelson, and the hapless conspiring of Bryson DeChambeau, Gold Boy was a fun oddity to bat around for a few days and it seemed everyone got in on it, even Brandel Chamblee, a puzzled Tiger Woods, and a few cost-conscious pros.
He was a sensation no one could have seen coming, certainly not the audience, and probably not the creators who had the lustrous little boy waiting in the metaverse wings. You don’t start Players week thinking the sort of mixed reality tricks that made Roger Rabbit a star 35 years ago would become a primary storyline, but never doubt the power of 100 meeting rooms and the pressure to just do stuff, anything, to crowbar accoutrements onto the Tour’s biggest championship. Brentley Romine writes the origin story and full Gold Boy chronicles here. It was, in all seriousness, a delightful diversion from the heavier talks of late and became harmless fun bridging the rain delay gaps. I’m not sure why he existed or who it was for, but everyone should be happy with the result.