As we head into the third round of the 2017 PLAYERS Championship, here are some quick thoughts and analysis of what we've seen on the grounds at TPC Sawgrass.
Louis Oosthuizen and Kyle Stanley are the co-leaders heading into the weekend at 9-under par, and it feels like a long time coming for both players but for different reasons.
Oosthuizen is one of the most talented players in the world without question, but his lone PGA Tour win came at the 2010 Open Championship. He only has one top-20 finish in this event in six starts, but it always feels like his game is suited for Sawgrass. With Oosthuizen, that could be true of pretty much every PGA Tour venue, but him going low with a 66 should surprise absolutely no one.
The story with Stanley is pretty simple: When healthy, he's one of the best ball strikers in the world, but his struggles on the green negate all of those advantages. This week though, his strokes gained putting number is a +2.164, which is a great number for any player, but particularly for Stanley as his best previous performance came at the 2009 John Deere Classic where he posted a +1.203. If he can keep putting like this on the weekend, his second career PGA Tour win is definitely in reach.
One of the big stories coming into the week was the redesigned par-4 12th hole. The changes to the original design included shortening the hole to make it drivable, adding a large bunker short of the green to force accuracy from the tee, and adding a water hazard to the left of the green for anyone who was long enough but was a little offline. These changes were supposed to make a rather mundane hole more exciting by inviting players to drive the green, but that hasn't really happened. Over the first two rounds, only a small percentage of players have even attempted to drive the 12th.
Some of that is because the two pin placements haven't exactly been inviting to begin with, but the bigger issue has been that on the left side of the green, the slope is severe toward the water. Attempts from the tee that are even slightly left have a chance of going in the water, and that's just not a chance that a lot of guys are wanting to take. In pre-tournament press conferences, many of the bigger hitters like Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, and Sergio Garcia declared they would likely be laying up from the tee and wedging onto the green, and that's exactly what they've done.
It's going to be really interesting to see if this changes over the weekend, especially if we get to a point where someone needs to make a move to catch the leader.
I spent a good portion of the afternoon following the Alex Noren/Adam Hadwin/Luke Donald trio because I wanted to get an up-close look at Noren instead of the occasional one that I get on TV. I walked away from the experience being all-in because it confirmed what I had seen on TV: He's just solid in every conceivable area. Since he plays almost exclusively in Europe, the stats don't show much in the way of positivity for Noren, but he's a good ball striker and a terrific putter. He hit some shots early on Friday that were incredible, especially the long bunker shot on the fifth and the sawed-off approach on the par-4 sixth that he used to keep the ball out of the wind. It feels like he has all of the shots.
I'm not convinced that he's legitimately one of the best 15 players in the world, but he's really, really good. The Official World Golf Rankings get crushed from some because it tends to reward players like Noren in seemingly outsized ways, but it feels different with him. Despite the fact that he struggled a little bit on the way in and it's his first time at TPC Sawgrass, Noren can absolutely win this tournament on the weekend.
Phil Mickelson has always been inconsistent from tournament to tournament, round to round and even hole to hole, but what has happened over the past few years has taken that to a different level. He still makes a lot of birdies, but the bogeys and doubles are coming in more frequently these days. Friday at THE PLAYERS was a perfect example. Mickelson opened with a front nine 33, featuring three birdies and no bogeys, but when he went to the back, it all went haywire on him. He shot a back nine 39 with three bogeys, a double bogey, and two birdies for an even par 72. He's not out of the tournament, but after the start that he had, this could have been so much more.
This has been happening all year, and it's something Mickelson addressed before the tournament started when explaining his lack of practice time for this week. It's always hard to pinpoint exact causes for sudden changes in play quality, but the fact that Mickelson cited he needed rest coming in suggests he might just be getting tired toward the end of rounds.
Of course, this is perfectly reasonable. Mickelson turns 47 in June, and even though you can seemingly play golf forever, expecting that same level of quality to show up all the time is unreasonable. Mickelson hasn't won a tournament since the 2013 Open Championship, and unless he cleans up these mistakes, it's hard to see him winning again anytime soon.