COMMENTARY | Winning The Players Championship affords a champion a lot of perks: the game's largest first-place check at $1.71 million, five-year exemptions on the PGA Tour and into The Players and, now, a three-year invitation to the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship.
What it hasn't afforded its winners in the last five years, however, is a slew of follow-up PGA Tour wins.
Since The Players moved to May in 2007, and Phil MIckelson captured the crown, the next five winners of the proverbial "fifth major" have won a combined two times on the PGA Tour.
Sergio Garcia won in 2008 in a playoff over Paul Goydos. He slipped so low that he eventually took a few months away from professional golf in 2010 before winning in consecutive weeks in Spain almost a year later on the European Tour and finally taking the PGA Tour's Wyndham Championship last season.
A year after Sergio kissed his putter after victory, the Europeans kept on rolling with Henrik Stenson taking the Players crown. The powerful Swede seemed destined for more than faux-major glory. So far, he has not been. In fact, he sunk as low as No. 230 in the Official World Golf Ranking in 2012 before beginning the long climb back now inside the top 40. His only win since The Players was the South African Open a year ago.
Then there's Tim Clark who, unfortunately, was plagued by injury. An elbow problem sidelined him for the second two-thirds of 2011, but Clark has been close to another PGA Tour win. He was solo second earlier this season at the Sony Open in Hawaii, won by rookie Russell Henley and is 29th in FedEx Cup points.
K.J. Choi outlasted David Toms in 2011 to win The Players in a playoff, making a par on the first hole of sudden-death to capture the most significant of his eight on the PGA Tour. Again, however, the Korean who was rallied by Choi's Bois that week at the Stadium Course has been unable to notch a ninth Tour title. At nearly 43 years old, maybe that's expecting a bit much.
Matt Kuchar may, in fact, be the exception to this trend of precipitous Players drops. T he year as reigning champion has barely ended for Kuchar, who was outstanding amid the torrent of greats challenging for The Players last year to earn the trophy.
In blustery conditions in Arizona back in February, Kuchar captured the WGC-Accenture Match Play title. He has three other top-10 finishes this season, including a T-8 effort at the Masters as a follow on his T-3 from the year prior at Augusta National. Kooch is nowhere near a downturn. He's a slumpbuster.
Kuchar's brilliance this season doesn't portend a successful defense of his title this week. No one has ever won consecutive Players titles. However, if one player could manage to end that anomaly, it would be the Georgia Tech product.
For whatever reason, the Stadium Course does seem to identify the best player that week, but does not seem to always identify the most talented among the field.
By comparison, it seems Augusta National does allow the best of the best -- not just for those four days in April -- to contend for a green jacket.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have enjoyed tremendous success amid the blooming azaleas. Lee Westwood and Ernie Els, whose games do have flaws, have been able to get painstakingly close by flexing their strengths as much as the Jones-Mackenzie test will allow. Rory McIlroy seems to love the home of the Masters and feel the antithesis for Pete Dye's Stadium Course.
It is that dichotomy that perhaps makes Fred Couples such an interesting case. Couples is one of four to win multiple Players crowns (1984 and '96) at TPC Sawgrass and, even at 53, can still manage to contend on seemingly an annual basis at the Masters more than two decades after his lone major breakthrough.
What is it about the now-Hall-of-Famer's game, then, that has crossover appeal to two very starkly contrasting courses? At his best, Couples putted well enough, but the strongest facets of his game were effortless power and ballstriking, as well as the knowledge of when to step on the gas and when to throttle back a bit.
Greg Norman had the two pegged as well, with Norman winning a couples of Players titles. He also had three runner-up finishes at Augusta, including the painful '96 meltdown clearing the way for a third Nick Faldo title.
How about Hal Sutton and Davis Love III, the other multiple-time winners at Sawgrass? They could have been so much more, too, each only winning a PGA Championship in their careers.
So maybe it's not in the best interest of a player to have truly figured out TPC Sawgrass. For the ones that did, they arguably never reached their true potential. For the likes of Woods and Mickelson, just one win was enough -- they had more major business to handle.
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.
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