PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Webb Simpson popped the cork on a champagne bottle to celebrate his victory in The Players Championship.
Though not by design, the moment also could have signaled the close of an era.
The Players Championship, which has all the trappings of a major except public recognition as one, ended its 12-year run being played in May. Simpson set or tied four records, one of which drained the former swamp of drama the TPC Sawgrass can deliver in any month.
He had a seven-shot lead going into the last day, the largest in the tournament’s 45-year history. No one got closer than four shots Sunday. The only other time that happened at The Players was in 1994 when Greg Norman didn’t make a bogey until the 13th hole of the final round and set the scoring record at 24-under 264.
The idea behind moving to May was to give golf a big event every month starting with the Masters in April, to have better weather and more daylight, and to present a great chance at firm, fast conditions.
This year’s edition was a mystery.
Even without any rain, the course was never on the edge. With minimal wind, at least by Florida’s standards, the scores were unusually low. At one point in the final round, Jason Dufner made a birdie to break out of a 10-way tie for third by reaching 12-under par.
There were 1,754 birdies for the tournament, breaking by 136 birdies the record from 1996.
Simpson tied the course record of 63 on Friday with a double bogey on the 17th hole when his sand wedge hit the wooden frame on the front of the green, landed on the back of the green and tumbled over the back onto the water. Brooks Koepka matched the record on Sunday, though that required an albatross when he one-hopped a 6-iron into the hole for his second shot on the par-5 16th.
Everyone was expecting far tougher.
“This golf course over the weekend will turn into a beast,” Charl Schwartzel predicted on Friday.
Charles Howell III had a bogey-free round of 67 on Friday and expected to see “a lot more brown than green tomorrow afternoon.”
It never materialized.
It was almost as if the PGA Tour wanted players to have their way with the Stadium Course in case there was any debate about moving back to March.
The turf was as pure as it has ever been, lush with grass. Henrik Stenson suspected when he arrived on Tuesday that it was too good, too green, to be able to make it the ultimate test by the weekend.
“It’s the easiest I’ve seen it play,” Stenson said. “Hopefully, in March it gets back to feeling major-like. Because this was more like any other tour event, I think.”
Adam Scott won The Players in March and never has been a fan of the May date.
“I don’t think they ever got the setup right in this date,” Scott said after he tied for 11th at 11-under 277. That was one higher than his winning score in 2004. “It’s in phenomenal shape. I just don’t think they took the risk they should have in preparing the course differently. To see those scores today, it’s too easy. There’s not enough risk and a lot of reward.”
There have been eight rounds of 63 at The Players since it moved to the TPC Sawgrass in 1982 – six of those record-tying scores since 2013.
Mark Russell, vice president of rules and competition for the PGA Tour, said the primary explanation was lack of wind. He also correctly noted that to take Simpson out of the equation, the winning score would have been in the ballpark of recent years.
“That golf course, there’s a disaster at every turn,” Russell said. “But if you navigate it properly, you can score.”
He also said it would be different in March.
The fairways were sand-capped ahead of the move to May, so it should drain better. The problem was having to rely on the weather ahead of the tournament, and a cooler-than-normal spring meant the rough was down.
“I think we’ll have a lot more control over it in March,” Russell said.
What the tour can’t control is the perception of its premier event.
When it last was held in March, it was the anchor of the Florida swing and just two weeks before the Masters. There was much anticipation about Augusta National even as The Players was going on. Next year, there is a bit of a buffer. The Players will be the third of four stops in Florida, and there will be three more weeks (two in Texas) before the Masters.
It still might feel like the undercard to the Masters. But it probably has a better chance of feeling like a major.