PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – On a leaderboard seemingly as crowded as Times Square on New Year’s Eve, there’s no shortage of compelling, feel-good story lines heading into the final round at the Players Championship.
How heartwarming might it be for European fans to see Lee Westwood, the 47-year-old Englishman, earn his first victory on American soil in 11 years with girlfriend, Helen Storey, carrying his bag.
If underdog stories are your thing, the odds of a golfer ranked No. 257 in the world like Doug Ghim – with one top-10 finish in 18 months of Tour membership – winning his first tournament at TPC Sawgrass are astronomical.
Chris Kirk, a husband and father of three kids, is a remarkable comeback tale after taking six months off in 2019 to address his alcohol dependency issues, and has now enjoyed 23 months of sobriety.
That trio is either on top of the leaderboard or close enough to it to be hoisting the Players gold trophy come Sunday evening.
But more than anything else, what golf fans should be stoked to see from this eclectic leaderboard in the final round is a Ryder Cup appetizer. Let’s have a battle to the finish line, starring top-10 Americans Bryson DeChambeau (No. 6) and Justin Thomas (No. 3), dueling with Europeans Jon Rahm, Paul Casey, 2008 Players champion Sergio Garcia and Westwood.
Imagine fans tuning in across the globe for a potential Sunday showdown between Players leader Westwood (13-under-par) and second-place occupant DeChambeau, a remake of last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational mano-a-mano won by golf’s biggest rising star.
How could that not have a little Ryder Cup feel to it, a possible prelude to what we might see in September at Whistling Straits?
When asked about whether the Players would have a Ryder-type atmosphere because of the USA-Europe element at the top of the leaderboard, DeChambeau replied: “Maybe. Look, we’re all focused to win this golf tournament, focused to win the Players championship. This is a chance that I’ve wanted my entire life.
“Growing up watching the Players, and finally having this opportunity is going to be something special. For sure in regards to the Ryder Cup-type atmosphere, maybe.”
There was no maybe about it as DeChambeau came off a birdie at the par-5 16th hole. As he pumped the gallery heading to the 17th tee, and again as he walked the cart path toward the island green, some fans on the hill were giving him a standing ovation. It was as if DeChambeau was a boxer entering the ring for a heavyweight championship fight.
Well, isn’t that precisely the kind of a raucous atmosphere we’re used to seeing at the Ryder Cup? DeChambeau has raved all week on how much inspiration he draws from the positive crowd reaction he receives almost everywhere he goes.
He’s not Tiger 2.0, but DeChambeau might be the next-best thing golf has to offer at the moment. Even four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, after a long pause during an interview on Saturday, acknowledged that his game has gotten sidetracked by trying to create more distance off the tee to keep up with Bryson, who added 40 pounds of muscle the past two years.
It’s certainly feasible that McIlroy, who missed the cut at the Players, envisions DeChambeau not only as a Tour rival, but potentially a Ryder Cup adversary for the next decade. The American bomber was heartened by McIlroy’s respect for his game.
“You know, I appreciate it, first off,” said DeChambeau. “The second comment I would have that, I wasn’t trying to influence anybody. I was just trying to play my own game and hit it as far as I possibly could.
“This journey I’m on is not taken lightly. I’ve tried to figure out a bunch of different variables that you have to in order to hit it straight, hitting it really far.”
If DeChambeau wants to win for the second consecutive week on a vastly different layout than Bay Hill, he’s going to have to overcome five accomplished Europeans that are either leading the Players or within three shots of Westwood, including Casey (9-under), Rahm (9-under), Garcia (8-under) and Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick (8-under).
And then there’s Justin Thomas, the No. 3-ranked American who came within a missed birdie putt at No. 18 of tying the Stadium course record. Still, on Saturday moving day, Thomas shot 64 and soared up the leaderboard into a third-place tie with Ghim at 10-under-par.
“Yeah, I wish all rounds were that way,” said Thomas. “I hit the ball beautifully.”
So beautiful that in a round where he carded seven birdies and one eagle, Thomas needed a combined length of putts just 49 feet, 8 inches to get those red numbers.
“As long you hit the ball in the fairway, it’s not very long, you got four par-5s, you can realistically eagle – besides No. 9 you can, but it’s not likely. You can eagle every par-5, you got a short hole and you can make eagle on this weekend at [par-4] No. 12.
“So you can have crazy stuff happen out here and you can really, really shoot a low number.”
Realistically, a minimum dozen players have a shot to take home the $2.7 million first-place paycheck. But with Westwood and DeChambeau playing in the final group for the second straight Sunday, it’s hard to not think about whether second-place Bryson can take down the Englishman again.
The stakes have never been higher for Westwood, who has missed only eight greens in three days and hasn’t won on American soil since the St. Jude Classic in 2010.
“Yes, no doubt,” Westwood replied when asked if this would be his greatest career victory. “It’ll be the biggest tournament that I’ve ever won.”
It’s conceivable Westwood may get his greatest challenge from DeChambeau and Thomas, possibly coming down to shot-making on the 17th and 18th holes where the Stadium crowds – even at 20 percent capacity due to COVID – are most raucous. But he dismissed the whole Ryder Cup narrative thing.
“No, I think the Ryder Cup is the last thing on the players’ mind,” said Westwood. “Everyone is focused on winning the Players.”
Fair enough, but it didn’t escape DeChambeau that he might be developing some sort of budding rivalry with Westwood. That’s quite remarkable considering he’s 20 years younger than the man he’s again battling for a PGA Tour victory.
“I guess so,” said DeChambeau. “He’s making a lot of amazing putts, too. That’s what it takes to win golf tournaments.”
And a Ryder Cup.
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