PGA Tour’s big show has LIV’s shadow hanging over it this year

AP photo by Charlie Neibergall / Golf fans walk towards the 18th green of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during Wednesday's practice round for The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Such are the times in professional golf that so much attention at The Players Championship is on a player who is not even part of what is annually the strongest field of the year.

Stranger still is that the player in question is not named Tiger Woods.

Cameron Smith is a reminder of the sport's currently fractured world. The 29-year-old Australian is the reigning champion at The Players Championship, which is the PGA Tour's premier tournament, but not able to return this year because the tour has suspended him for joining the rival LIV Golf League.

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, and they are among 17 players who were part of the windy, wild weekend at TPC Sawgrass last year.

The Australian flag still flies outside the clubhouse in honor 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 victory.

But there's no Smith — or his trademark mullet — even though the No. 5 player in the Official World Golf Ranking has lived down the street since 2016. He probably can be found this week with a rod-and-reel for fishing, not a wedge or a putter for golfing.

"I think it'll be a pretty quiet week on the water," Smith told Golf Digest two weeks ago in Mexico, where LIV's second season opened.

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 is never too far away.

Smith is the first reigning champion to miss this event since Woods in 2014, when the 15-time major champion 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, which is a month away.

"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."

Monahan's tournament still has the strongest field so far this year, helped by the fact that it has 144 players. But by pure numbers, it can be difficult to distinguish between this event and last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club in Orlando, or from a few weeks back in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational had 43 of the top 50 players in the world. This field has 44 of the top 50, the difference being that 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," said top-ranked Jon Rahm, 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 compared to other PGA Tour events.

"And then the legacy that a tournament has," Rahm added. "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 at Sawgrass, 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, 2019 winner Rory McIlroy is built on power and 2021 winner Justin Thomas has a blend of distance and control of 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 three-time major champion 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 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.

Xander Schauffele was two shots out of the lead later in the weather-delayed first round and faced such conditions. He came up 15 yards short of the island and made a bogey. On the next hole, he made a quadruple-bogey 8.

His caddie still keeps a statistic on Schauffele 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."

Harrington elected

Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland, the late Tom Weiskopf and the remaining founders of the LPGA Tour were among those elected Wednesday for the World Golf Hall of Fame.

The induction will be June 10, 2024, the Monday ahead of the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The six inductees — the LPGA founders were voted in as one — represent the largest class since there were that many in 2008.

The others elected by a 20-member panel of golf leaders, media and four hall members: Sandra Palmer, whose 19 career wins on the LPGA Tour included two majors; three-time major champion Beverly Hanson; and former U.S. Open champion Johnny Farrell.

Harrington, 51, and Palmer, 79, are the only two living players who were elected.

Among the finalists who did not get 75% of the voting were swing coach Butch Harmon and Dottie Pepper, the two-time LPGA major champion and longtime golf analyst.