BlogPrelude to The Players Championship

by Sal Johnson

What a finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Another great event at Bay Hill, with Kurt Kitayama winning. Frankly, with so many good players in the mix, it was a surprise that Kitayama won. But it didn’t surprise me. Kitayama was born in Chico, California, and made it to the PGA Tour in a different manner. He graduated in 2015 from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and turned pro. At the end of the year, he attended the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying process and finished T-106th which gave him limited status on that tour in 2016. That year he had a tough time, playing in nine events but only making two cuts. He returned to Korn Ferry School and finished T-42nd which gave him a return trip to the Korn Ferry in 2017. That year was a bit better. In 20 starts, he made 10 cuts and had three top-25 finishes, he finished 101st on the money list and lost his Tour card. In 2018 he played in 20 tournaments around the world on seven different tours and at the end of the year, made it through all three stages of qualifying school of the European Tour and finished 4th to earn a spot on the 2019 DP Tour.
In just his third start on the DP Tour, he won the 2019 AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open. Eight starts later, he won again at the Oman Open, becoming the fastest player in DP Tour history at 11 starts to win twice. He finished the year 14th in the Race to Dubai. He continued playing on the DP Tour in 2020 but also in eight PGA Tour events. Thanks to a T-18th at the AT&T Pebble, he earned enough non-member FedExCup points to play in the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour finals. He finished 23rd in the finals and earned a PGA Tour card in 2022. He had a good season finishing runner-up at the Mexico Open and Genesis Scottish Open, a third-place finish at the Honda Classic, and 41st on the FedExCup.
At the same time, Tim Tucker also found some success after thinking he was through from the PGA Tour. In 2016 he met a young player named Bryson DeChambeau, and the two of them started to explore metrics and how to use science to play better golf. While they tinkered with science, Tucker became DeChambeau’s full-time caddie, and they both found success as DeChambeau won eight times on the PGA Tour, including the 2020 U.S. Open. But right after that, the relationship turned toxic, and at the 2021 Rocket Mortgage, Tucker and DeChambeau broke up. It was no problem for Tucker, who developed the True Aim putting device, which is doing well. He also started another business which was a shuttle service to get golfers to and from Bandon Dunes in Oregon. He started his caddy career at Bandon, so he had an idea of what was needed in his transportation venture, which was very successful. Tucker didn’t give up caddying on the PGA Tour. He picked up jobs like looping for Chesson Hadley at the Shriners Children’s Open. While at Bandon, Tucker got to know Kitayama’s brother Daniel, a caddy at Bandon. In January, Kitayama was struggling with his game. Since turning professional, he had Bryan Martin as his caddy, but that 4-year relationship was on the rocks.  In the final round at Pebble, Martin misclubbed Kitayama, and the shot led to a double bogey.  At the time, he was in contention but went on to shoot 76 and finish T-29th.  They parted ways, and Kitayama was looking for another caddie. When he was talking to his brother Daniel, Tucker came up, and my chance Tucker was going to the WM Phoenix Open for his True Aim project. They met, and Tucker told Kitayama that he would start winning if he could improve his driving. At the same time, Tucker agreed to caddie for Kitayama, starting at Phoenix and finishing T-23rd. At the Genesis, they missed the cut, but at his next start Bay Hill, they hit gold. A bit of a coincidence the last of DeChambeau’s wins came at Bay Hill in 2021.
In looking through Kitayama’s driving stats, he was 180th in driving accuracy in 2022 and coming into the Palmer, he was 195th. In Kitayama’s PGA Tour starts, his best week in driving accuracy was T-18th at last year’s Rocket Mortgage. For the week at Bay Hill, Kitayama was T-1st, the first time in 50 PGA Tour starts, and 25 cuts made it was the first time on the PGA Tour that he was in the top ten in driving accuracy for a week. So in looking at the keys to Kitayama winning, his improved driving has to be the key. Since he hit 39 of 54 fairways, this translated to Kitayama hitting 51 of 72 greens which were also T-1st in the field, his first time leading that stat for the week.
Kitayama shot 67-68 to open his week and held on to dear life with rounds of 72-72 to win by a shot over Rory McIlroy and Harris English. Kitayama showed a lot of resiliency as he made a double bogey on 4 in the third round and then a triple-bogey 7 on the 9th hole on Sunday. Since the PGA Tour started keeping hole-by-hole records in 1980, Kitayama is only the fourth to win a PGA Tour event with a triple or worst in the final round. Here are those players:

*In the 1991 Tucson Open, Phil Mickelson made a triple-bogey 8 on the par 5, 14th hole.
*David Ogrin, in the 1996 Valero Texas Open, made a triple-bogey 6 on the par 3, 6th hole.
*Viktor Hovland in the 2020 Puerto Rico Open made a triple-bogey 6 on the par 3, 11th hole
*In the 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational, Kurt Kitayama made a triple-bogey 7 on the par 4, 9th hole.

For those wondering, the only other champion at Bay Hill to win with a triple and double bogey was Fuzzy Zoeller, who made a triple-bogey 7 on the par 4 15th hole in the 2nd round, then a double-bogey 7 on the par 5 6th hole in the 3rd round.

So with Kitayama’s new-found driving skills, does this bode well for him this year? In looking at his stats, he is middle of the road in most of them except for driving accuracy. As his caddy, Tim Tucker said to him last month, if he could clean up his driving, he would find himself in a position to win and to do it on challenging courses and in the majors. One other thing that he could improve on is his putting. For the year, he is 79th in Strokes Gained Putting, 120th in putting from 4 to 8 feet, and 107th in putting inside ten feet. If he could improve these categories to the level he was at Bay Hill, in which he was 2nd in Strokes Gained Putting, T-36th in putting from 4 to 8 feet, and T-30th in putting inside ten feet he could find himself in contention a lot more time. It’s safe to say that the union between Kitayama and Tim Tucker is in the “honeymoon” stage right now, and if Tucker can get such great results in just three events, the sky is the limit. One last thing that was a big key for Kitayama was that everyone around him missed putts down the stretch. Rory missed from ten feet at the final hole that could have tied him with Kitayama.
Tyrrell Hatton missed a nine-footer at 16 and 17 and then a 20-footer at 18.
The worst had to be Jordan Spieth, who was a perfect 62 for 62 on putts inside 8 feet before he missed from 8 feet at 12, 5 feet at 14, 5 feet at 15, 5 feet at 16, and 8 feet at 17. Easy to play Monday quarterbacking but these five puts, but if he could have made all five, he would have won by three instead of finishing T-4th, two shots back.
While everyone was missing, Kitayama hit the critical putt in from 13 feet at 17 for a birdie and maintained his lead by getting up and down at 18 from 47 feet.

Others that came close

Rory McIlroy was my main pick for the week, and even though a runner-up is good, a win could have been even better. If we can see one area in which McIlroy needs improving, it’s greens in regulation. Rory hit 43 of 72 greens ranking T-36th. Compared with Kitayama, who hit 51 of 72 greens, those 8 less spelled the difference between winning and finishing runner-up. We have noticed Rory missing a lot more greens lately. When you considered that last year he ranked 12th in Greens in Regulation, and despite being T-5th at the Genesis, he ranked T-34th at Phoenix and T-38th at Dubai. For the year in his four starts, Rory ranks 137th in greens in regulation, and if he expects to win at the Masters, he can’t miss that many. Another key for McIlroy not winning was the inability to know how he stood in the tournament on the 14th tee. Rory struggled early with bogeys at 1 and 2 but fought back with birdies at 4, 5, 9, 10, 12, and 13. He knew he was behind but didn’t know how he stood on the 14th tee. So he thought he was a shot or two back and felt he needed to be aggressive. He took less club and tried to hit it harder, but the shot came up short and left of the green in a bunker. While walking to par 3, 14th green, he saw the leaderboard and was surprised to see he was a shot up. He couldn’t get it up and down for par and then made a bogey at 15. He got that stroke back with a birdie at 16 but could not capitalize on his great shot into 18, missing the ten-foot birdie putt; as we say, the rest is history.

Scottie Scheffer couldn’t get anything rolling.

Last year Scottie Scheffler kept it together with a final round 72 to win by a shot. He was in the same spot this year, but when he got off to a bogey-par-bogey start and then made a double on 8, that spelled his doom. He could birdie 9, 12, and 16, but his bogey at 18 was a killer.

What happened to Jon Rahm?

When Jon Rahm shot 65 on Thursday, most of the golfing world gave him the tournament. The reason was easy, Rahm played on Thursday in the afternoon, and many figured that if he could shoot 65 in windy conditions, the calm conditions for Friday playing early would allow him to steal the event. But Rahm didn’t take advantage of the good conditions as he bogeyed his 2nd hole and birdied his fifth hole shooting 36. But on his second nine, played on the front nine, Rahm made a bogey at 5, double at 6, and birdie at 7 but bogeys at 8 and 9 to shot 76. Rahm did the same thing on Saturday, making eight bogeys for another 76. Let’s be frank about something, as good as Jon Rahm’s game is, he just isn’t comfortable on Florida courses. I have to think he does the same thing this week at the Players, another event he has struggled on.

Some players gave us a feeling that they would do well at The Players.

We have seen all year long how well Jason Day has played. He was T-18th at the American Express and since then was T-7th at the Farmers, 5th at Phoenix, T-9th at the Genesis, and T-10th at the Palmer. In this stretch, he is 54 under par in 20 rounds of golf, and as we come to the Players, a tournament day won in 2016, you have to think that he could win again. I have also to watch Keegan Bradley. He was T-10th this week. He won at the Zozo last October and was 2nd at the Farmers. Last year he was 5th at the Players, and I expect he will have another terrific week. Also, watch Tyrrell Hatton, who was T-4th at the Palmer. He could have won but again missed a lot of putts down the stretch. Now Hatton has struggled in the past at the Players missing three cuts. But he was T-13th last year, making me feel we must watch him. Last, we have to talk about Patrick Cantlay. He has struggled since the start of January and was 3rd at the Genesis and T-4th at the Palmer. He too has struggled at the Players. In five starts missed three cuts and was T-22nd and T-23rd. But could he have learned something this week at the Honda, and after a final round 68, could he be coming into the Players with a hot hand? I am taking his recent golf seriously, and he is a person to watch this week

So some happy times for two and a half players from Puerto Rico

After years of struggling on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica Tour and Korn Ferry Tour, Nico Echavarria earned his PGA Tour card via the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, solidifying it with a T-5th at the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship to finish 20th on the Korn Ferry Tour Finals Eligibility Points List. With that, he is a PGA Tour member. He only made two cuts in his first ten starts, finishing T-12th at the Sony Open in Hawaii and T-23rd at the Bermuda Championship. Maybe the fact that his two cuts were on courses next to an ocean should have told us that he would have a great week. Echavarria was solid in Puerto Rico with rounds of 67-67-65-68 and said his key was finding something in his swing before playing on Friday. So with the win, Echavarria is fully exempt through the 2025 season. He doesn’t get a Masters invite since their invitations are only to event winners with full FedExCup points. Still, Echavarria gets into the Players, the PGA Championship, and the Memorial. For next year, Echavarria will play in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, The Genesis Invitational, and Arnold Palmer.
Of course, Echavarria is the most excited about his win, but Akshay Bhatia is just as enthusiastic about finishing 2nd. Bhatia made birdies on his final four holes and thanks to his final round 65, earned special temporary membership to the PGA Tour. Bhatia was among the most touted amateurs, becoming the first high-schooler to play on the U.S. Walker Cup team. He got dozens of college offers, but instead of going to college, he passed it up to turn pro at 17. He has struggled to play on the Korn Ferry and PGA Tour. In 2021 he finished T-41st in the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship, which got him to the finals of the Korn Ferry Qualifying tournament. He finished T-63rd, getting him minimal status. He got into the first event at the Bahamas Great Exuma Classic and won by two shots, getting a full exemption on the Korn Ferry Tour for 2022. Unfortunately, Bhatia didn’t play well, missing 13 cuts in 24 starts, and couldn’t earn a PGA Tour card. So he planned on playing in as many PGA Tour events that he could either get a sponsor invite or win a spot in Monday qualifying. On the PGA Tour, he finished T-17th at Bermuda, 45th at the RSM Classic, T-49th at the Honda, and 2nd at Puerto Rico. With the 165 non-member FedExCup points he got in Puerto Rico, with the other three events, he pushed his season-long total to 230 points, surpassing the threshold of 175.2 points. So Bhatia can accept unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the 2023 season. He will play at the Valspar next week.
Now we said two and a half players were happy in Puerto Rico. The half is Ryan Gerard. He finished 4th at the Honda and earned 135 FedExCup points. The finish got him into Puerto Rico, and he hovered around the top ten for most of the week. On Sunday, he didn’t play badly as he was two under after 16 holes before making birdies at 17 and 18. Unfortunately, he finished T-11th and only got 34 non-member points to run his season total to 169 points, 6.2 short of the 175.2 points needed for special temporary membership. More bad news, if he could have finished in the top ten, he would have first earned enough points to pass the threshold, but a top ten would have gotten him into Valspar, so right now, he is in limbo either having to get a sponsor exempts or Monday qualifying. So Gerard needs to get into a PGA Tour event and finish in the top 50 to get the special membership.

Playing for a boatload of money this week at The Players.

I was a bit shocked in doing prep work for the Players and realizing that the purse is $25 million, with the winner getting $4.5 million. I know that LIV Golf plays for $4 million each time, but many feel it is more like a silly season event than real golf. But in a big event like the Players Championship, winning $4.5 is a lot. In comparison:
*In 1967, for the 37 PGA Tour events played, the total money awarded that year was $3,979,162 and went up to just over $5 million the following year. That year’s amount is the same as what the winner is playing for this week.

*For Jack Nicklaus, who made $5.7 million in his 45-year career on the PGA Tour, it took him 425 starts and 21 years before Nicklaus hit the $4.5 million in earnings with his 3rd place finish in the 1983 Canadian Open (he won just over $23,000).
*Jack’s biggest check on the PGA Tour was the $144,000 he won with his 1986 victory at the Masters.
*He broke the $4.5 million mark for Tiger Woods with his T-5th finish at the 1998 NEC World Series of Golf. That was his 47th start as a professional on the PGA Tour.
*For Tiger, his biggest check on the PGA Tour was $2,070,000 with his victory in the 2019 Masters
*The purse for the Players Championship is $25 million. 56 players have gone over that mark, and the most recent player is Harris English, who finished T-2nd at the Arnold Palmer to get over the $25 million mark.
*The first time the PGA Tour played for over $25 million a year was in 1985, when they played for $25,290,526 in 47 events.

Why you shouldn’t worry about Adrian Meronk, but he missed out on a golden opportunity.

For the last three weeks, I have been very interested in the plight of DP Tour player Adrian Meronk. He is a Polish player born in Germany but lives in Wroclaw, Poland. He attended East Tennessee State University from 2012 to 2016, so we know his roots may be Polish, but he would love to play on the PGA Tour. Meronk was not only the first Pole to earn membership on the DP World Tour by finishing in the top-15 on the Challenges Tour’s Road to Mallorca in 2019, but he made more history by becoming the first player from Poland to win on the DP World Tour with his win at the 2022 Horizon Irish Open.
Since Poland has never had a world-class golfer, Meronk is breaking many records. He was the first Pole to play in the U.S. Open in 2021, and the following month became the first Pole to play in the Olympics. Last year at St. Andrews, Meronk became the first pole in the 150-year history to play in the British Open, and in a few weeks he will be the first Pole to play in the Masters.
So Meronk is working hard to find a way to earn points, and the best way is playing on the PGA Tour. He was given a sponsor exemption for the Genesis and finished T-45th. He was given a foreign exemption for the Honda, and despite making bogeys on two of his last four holes, he finished T-14th. He also received a sponsor exemption to the Palmer and was looking forward to getting the most out of that exemption because time was running out.
I like Meronk’s game. I watched him play some holes at the British Open and was impressed with his tee-to-green game. Since then, Meronk finished T-7th at the DP World Championship to end his year by finishing 8th in the final Race to Dubai standings. He strongly started his 2023 DP World season by winning at the Australian Open. He was T-4th at the Ras Al Khaimah Championship, so I figured he would be good at not only the Genesis at Riviera but would be able to handle the Florida swing. I was rewarded with his T-14th at the Honda and figured he would continue the excellent play at the Palmer. I also liked that he had a late tee time on Thursday and an early time on Friday. He was the last player on Thursday, teeing off at 1:34. He struggled in high winds on Thursday after his first 15 holes were three over. He birdied 16 and 18 to salvage the round, shooting 73, and my thought was he would be playing early on Friday and would have a great chance of making the cut and climbing up the leaderboard. I was a bit surprised to see him struggle. He made a bogey on his first two holes and, with a 37 on his first nine, needed a great final nine. That never happened. He made bogey at 1 and 4 before having a major disaster with a triple-bogey 8 at 6 and then bogeyed his last three holes to shoot a 44 for an 81.
My first thought was that Florida golf got the best of him, and he couldn’t play in Florida. That is until the next day when I read a Rex Hoggard article in Golf Channel. On Friday, when he went to his locker, his TrackMan and Ipad were missing. So instead of following his pre-round routine, Meronk had to spend the time contacting Palm Beach Gardens police to file a theft report. The good news is that police looked at surveillance video and spotted the person who took Meronk’s stuff and was able to arrest him. The bad news is that his 81 was his second-highest career round, and he wasted a great opportunity when he missed the cut. Meronk isn’t in the field for the Players and is hopeful of getting a sponsor exemption for the Valspar. Since he is 53rd in the World Rankings, he will get into the WGC-Dell Match Play, so we will watch and see what happens in the next couple of weeks.

No Tiger at the players

So with Tiger Woods not entering the Players Championship, most of the media has given up on seeing him again until the Masters. It does make sense for him not playing the Players, yes, the course is flat and an easy walk, but frankly, even with two wins, he has struggled on the course, and he probably feels that he can’t win on the course. People don’t realize that, yes, he finished T-44th at the Genesis, but most feel he may never win, but Tiger is not that kind of a person. If he feels he can’t win, he won’t play, and who knows, maybe he feels that way for the Players. We saw some of that thinking when Tiger didn’t enter the U.S. Open at Brookline last year. We don’t know the reason, but we have to think a combination of not being physically able and not liking his chances on the challenging course could have been the reason.
But going back to Tiger and playing again. I wouldn’t be stunned if he decides to play at the Valspar Championship. The course is flat, and Tiger’s only start was T-2nd in 2018, just a shot back of winner Paul Casey. The Copperhead Course would provide a nice warm-up for Woods, and he would have a few weeks to prepare for the Masters. Now if he doesn’t play at the Valspar, what would be his chances of playing in the WGC-Match Play? Despite playing well in his one start at Austin Country Club, losing in the quarterfinals, it doesn’t make sense for him to play. First, Austin C.C. is a bit hilly, which is unsuitable for Tiger, and for him playing Match Play, it’s not how Tiger wants to get ready for the Masters. So I rule that out, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play the Valspar.

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