Players Championship gives Scottie Scheffler a shot at history

AP photo by Eric Gay / Scottie Scheffler hits from the 17th tee of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during the final round of The Players Championship on March 12, 2023, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Scheffler will attempt to become the first repeat champion in the event's history when the 50th edition of the tournament tees off Thursday.
AP photo by Eric Gay / Scottie Scheffler hits from the 17th tee of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during the final round of The Players Championship on March 12, 2023, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Scheffler will attempt to become the first repeat champion in the event's history when the 50th edition of the tournament tees off Thursday.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods never did it. Neither did Jack Nicklaus, even before The Players Championship found its home in a former swamp now known as TPC Sawgrass.

This is the 50th edition of the PGA Tour's premier event, and no one has ever repeated as tournament champion. Scottie Scheffler will be the latest to try when competition begins Thursday, and the odds are as much in his favor as any of the previous winners.

That includes Woods, who got only one crack at it — in 2002 — didn't break 70 and tied for 14th.

"I just think it's a golf course where you don't see a lot of repeat winners in general," Scheffler said. "There's not a guy that you have seen win on this golf course a bunch."

Only five players have won twice on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Nicklaus won The Players Championship three times, but that was before it moved permanently to this Pete Dye arena of endless thrills and that one (mostly) island green for the par-3 17th hole.

Scheffler is the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, the first time the reigning champion of this event has been in that position since Jason Day in 2016. The difference is Scheffler arrived straight from a dominant performance, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five shots Sunday at Bay Hill Club.

Already the top player from tee to green, his putter finally came to life in Orlando, and the rest of golf's best had every reason to be nervous.

"I've personally had some really, really nice ball-striking weeks," said Norway's Viktor Hovland, the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup champion last year. "But for him to have done that for so long and won so many tournaments that he's done the last couple years is very, very impressive. Because you get into periods of times where you feel like you can't miss and you're hitting it on a string, but then next month it might feel a little bit difficult. He just seems to keep doing what he's doing."

Scheffler has been No. 1 for the past 10 months, and it's not difficult to do the math. Along with three victories in the past year — that includes the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, the tourney hosted by Woods that has a small field and doesn't count as an official PGA Tour money event — he has finished out of the top 10 only three times in 22 tournaments.

How that translates to this week is yet to be seen, even on a course where a year ago it looked as though he was playing alone. He led by six shots at one point and won by five, just as he did last weekend at Bay Hill.

History, however, is not on his side. The Stadium Course has a reputation of never favoring a single style of golf, and there is trouble just about everywhere that everyone seems to find at some point over the tournament.

"That's why I think it's one of the best places we play on tour, just because it really doesn't suit one type of player," Scheffler said. "Bomb and gouge doesn't really work out here. But then you even have the shorter hitters that plot it around that can struggle here, because you've got to hit it exactly where you're looking or you're going to be punished pretty severely."

What has changed is The Players Championship now needs an asterisk, but only if it claims to have the strongest and deepest field in golf. World ranking aside, golf is so divided now because of the defections to the LIV Golf League that all the best are not at Sawgrass.

Not reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm, who's No. 3 in the OWGR behind Scheffler and Rory McIlroy, nor Brooks Koepka, who won the PGA Championship last May for his fifth major title. Also missing will be 2022 British Open winner Cameron Smith, who conquered this course two years ago, two-time major winner Dustin Johnson and 2020 U.S. Open winner Bryson DeChambeau.

And by the sound of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, there's not an immediate fix.

"It's going to take time," Monahan said of any deal with the Saudis, who fund LIV, and any solution to the fractured landscape in golf.

If nothing else, Thursday morning will mark a time to return the focus to inside the ropes, at least for four days.

Xander Schauffele remains on the PGA Tour but isn't a fan of Monahan, saying the leader has "a long way to go" to regain trust. McIlroy spoke out in favor of Monahan on Wednesday morning, saying he was the right man for the job and the tour was in a stronger position with new money from a group of private investors.

And then there was Scheffler, suggesting any blame for the divide should be on the players who are not at Sawgrass this week because of LIV.

"If the fans are upset, then look at the guys that left," he said. "We had a tour, we were all together, and the people that left are no longer here. At the end of the day, that's where the splintering comes from."

Schauffele perhaps summarized it best.

"I think you would like to have those players playing in an ideal world," he said, "but I feel like we're sort of beating a dead horse in this media room a little bit."

All four Baylor School graduates on the PGA Tour will be there, though, and while none of them are paired in the same group for the first round, they all have tee times within a similar afternoon window. Stephan Jaeger off the first tee and Keith Mitchell off the 10th are both up at 1:07 p.m., followed by Harris English (10th tee at 1:40) and Luke List (10th tee at 2:02).

  photo  AP photo by Butch Dill / Bernhard Langer watches his tee shot on the third hole during the first round of a PGA Tour Champions tournament last May 11 in Hoover, Ala.

Langer's injury update

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Bernhard Langer is missing the Masters for only the second time in the past 40 years because of an Achilles' tendon tear from playing pickleball.

This was supposed to be the final trip to Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club as a competitor for the two-time champion from Germany. But he disclosed the injury last month, referring to it as a "training exercise."

Langer, who holds the PGA Tour Champions record with 46 victories on the 50-and-older circuit, said on the "Musings on Golf" podcast that it came from pickleball, the racket sport that has surged to popularity in recent years.

"I play all sorts of sports to stay fit, and this was part of my fitness regime," Langer said of his time on the court. "I was playing pickleball, and somebody was trying to lob me. I did a few steps backward and hit an overhead, and as I landed on the ground with my feet, I heard this huge 'pop,' very loud, like a gunshot. I knew right away it was a torn Achilles'."

Langer had surgery on his left Achilles' tendon the next day. The 66-year-old German said he still plans to go to Augusta National during tournament week next month to attend the Masters Club dinner for champions and to visit sponsors.

He said he hopes to return to competition at the Insperity Invitational, which is May 3-5 in Houston.

"If that doesn't happen, shortly after that," he said.

The following week is the Regions Tradition, the first of five majors on the PGA Tour Champions schedule. Langer won the U.S. Senior Open last year for his 12th major on the senior circuit, and the victory made him eligible for the U.S. Open at North Carolina's Pinehurst No. 2 this June.

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