The Players Championship one year later: The lost round, the return to golf
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - When shots were last struck in competition in a Players Championship, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan hit the fewest.
In fact, he matched the fewest ever hit in a single round in the tournament. On March 12, 2020, the husky, stoic Japanese star shot 9-under-par 63 at the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course to take the first-round lead in The Players by two shots over 2017 Players champion Si Woo Kim, South African Christaan Bezuidenhout and former University of Georgia player Harris English.
There was not a happy ending to that promising beginning. By the time Matsuyama finished what he thought was one of the rounds of his life, the PGA Tour had already decided to try to play the remaining rounds with no fans.
It then decided later that night to cancel the tournament because of uncertainty over the effects of the looming coronavirus pandemic.
None of the scores counted. Had the day been official, the 71.305 average would have been the lowest since 2016 and the fifth-lowest opening round in tournament history.
One year later, there will be competitive golf at the Stadium Course - and barring any unforeseen circumstances (weather won't be one of them) - there will be more than one round.
The 2021 Players Championship began on Thursday with the usual stacked field (48 of the top-50 in the world), and usual lucrative purse, $15 million, with $2.7 going to the winner, along with the biggest chunk of FedEx Cup points possible, 600.
With the Tour having long since figured out how to conduct its competitions during the pandemic - it has played 36 times without interruption since a three-month break after the 2020 Players - there seems to be nothing to keep the tournament from going the usual 72 holes of thrills and spills on Pete Dye's fiendish design.
Throw in a few thousand fans (the Tour has allowed spectators for the fifth time since returning to golf, capped at 20% capacity) and it's as close to normal as touring golf has gotten since that fateful week when the world stopped.
"It was so weird when everything got shut down and I'm so happy to see fans back here," said Patrick Cantlay, who shot 67 in the aborted first round in 2020. "I know it's been a year, but you could really convince me it's been five, because I feel like we have lived through so many changes and so much disarray."
Xander Schauffele is playing in his first tournament with fans on the premises, and agreed that while normalcy is relative, any shred of it will be welcome.
"It's kind of crazy that it's been a full year since this crazy COVID thing happened," he said. "So it's nice to be back here, nice to see some fans as well. Everything kind of feels like it's somewhat back to normal."
The PGA Tour does not recognize any scores from last year's first round of The Players and indeed, it technically did not finish. When darkness fell eight players had yet to complete their round, and were due to come back the following morning.
But about three hours later, the Tour decided to cancel the entire event.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said earlier this week that the decision was both the easiest and the hardest he and his staff had to make - and also minor, in the grand scheme.
"It goes without saying that what we experienced that day would pale in comparison to what our world would experience in the coming days, weeks and months," he said.
However, the Tour began planning the next day how best to return to competition, eventually coming up with a complex set of protocols that have proven effective.
Fewer than 30 players and caddies have had to miss tournaments because of positive COVID-19 tests, and all were able to return - out of more than 10,000 tested. And the Tour and NASCAR are the only major sports in the pro or college level that have not postponed or canceled any additional events since resuming competition.
"Even though we had no clue what was to come, we would take what we were experiencing and turn it into a positive," Monahan said. "Something I feel our game does better than any other."
But what of the round that officially doesn't exist?
It was a remarkable display of golf, even if the warm weather and light winds rendered the Stadium Course vulnerable.
After Matsuyama, Kim, Bezuidenhout and English, Cantlay and Marc Leishman both shot 5-under 67. Webb Simpson, the 2018 Players champion, led 14 players tied for seventh at 4-under.
Three dozen players broke 70 and 82 shot under-par.
The group of players at 4-under or better also held some clues as to the identity of a new set of young stars who would push their way onto leaderboards and take victory walks up 18th-hole fairways after the PGA Tour resumed golf three months later: PGA champion Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Daniel Berger.
But on that day at the Stadium Course, no one could match Matsuyama.
He began his round at the 10th hole and ran off four birdie putts in a row, all on rolls of 14 feet or less.
Oddly enough, he bogeyed what is usually the easiest hole of the day, at No. 16. Had Matsuyama found a way to birdie it, he would have broken the course record by two shots.
But he shook that off and went to the front nine, where he was even more dominant. Matsuyama birdied the par-5 second hole, then reeled off five 3s in a row to complete his round - birdies at Nos. 5, 6 and 7, a par at No. 9, and an eagle at No. 9, after he hammered a 3-wood 293 yards onto the green and made a 25-foot putt.
“I knew if I made that putt, if I made eagle there, I would be close to a course record,” he said. “I’m happy it went in.”
Cantlay played in Matsuyama's group and a year later, is amazed by that display of ball-striking and putting.
"I remember I thought he couldn't make any more birdies and then he eagled the ninth hole to finish off the day," Cantlay said. "I thought I had played pretty good and he beat me by a few. I remember he just played an almost perfect round of golf."
Based on history, Matsuyama was headed for a big week. Three of the previous four players who shot 63 in the first round of the tournament went on to win: Greg Norman in 1994, Martin Kaymer in 2014 and Jason Day in 2016.
Matsuyama hit 15 greens and needed only 25 putts.
English, who also began his round at No. 10, matched Matsuyama by hitting 15 greens and highlighted his round with a 6-foot birdie putt at the dangerous Island Green at No. 17.
Bezuidenhout, a first-time Players participant, got off to a hot start with birdies on four of his first six holes. Like Matsuyama, his iron game was so sharp he barely had to sweat on the greens and his longest birdie putt was 10 feet.
But he had a highlight-reel shot at the difficult par-4 14th hole, chipping in for birdie from 63 feet away, one of five times he made either birdie or par after missing the green.
Kim was the only player who moved into the top five from an afternoon group. He had not won a tournament since winning the Players in 2017 but he broke that spell by winning the American Express in January.
Like Bezuidenhout, Kim had a short-game circus shot. He hit his second shot at the par-5 11th hole (his second hole of the day) onto the cart path to the left of the green. He dropped in the primary rough, then gouged the ball out to a tight pin, and into the hole for eagle.
The only cloud hanging over everyone's head that day was what would happen to the tournament.
They found out later that night when the Tour texted and emailed players that the tournament was canceled.
"It was a nice round but it didn't mean too much in the grand scheme of things," Cantlay said. "It was scary. It was real and so I'm glad we're getting back past that."
Morikawa, who went on to win the PGA, repeated a common phrase among players this week about the past year.
"I think everyone thinks it's crazy that it's been a year," he said. "But we have all gone through a lot and we have seen a lot of what the world has given us, and we are here. Really happy to be here."