How is The Players different in 2023? Cameron Smith headlines LIV Golf absentees at TPC Sawgrass | Golf News
The stars of the PGA Tour head to TPC Sawgrass this week for The Players, live on Sky Sports, with the golfing landscape looking significantly different to how it did ahead of last year’s tournament.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan used his press conference ahead of the 2022 contest to discuss Phil Mickelson’s comments about the tour’s “obnoxious greed” and acting like a “dictatorship”, following the six-time major winner’s backing of a then-new Saudi golf league.
Tiger Woods, Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa were among those who had already distanced themselves from any potential involvement in the proposed circuit, while Rory McIlroy described the plans as “dead in the water” a few weeks earlier after Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau both released statements committing to the PGA Tour.
The LIV Golf Invitational Series was announced the following week, with an eight-event schedule beginning in June ahead of a 14-tournament league season launching this year, with Johnson among those in the inaugural 48-man event and DeChambeau also U-turning soon after to join.
Other major winners, Ryder Cup stars and PGA Tour stalwarts have since switched to the breakaway circuit, which saw its 2023 season begin in Mayakoba last month, with all those who made the move suspended indefinitely by the PGA Tour and ruled out of this week’s event.
No title defence for Smith
It is unusual for the reigning champion of a tournament to be ineligible to return to try and defend his title, but last year’s winner Cameron Smith will not feature after last summer’s switch to LIV.
The Australian produced a brilliant final-round 66 during a weather-delayed finish to the 2022 contest, where storms took the tournament into a fifth day, to claim a one-shot victory and second PGA Tour win of last season.
Smith – who could have had the chance to become the first back-to-back winner of The Players – then enjoyed his maiden major victory at The Open later that summer, before making the switch from the PGA Tour following the conclusion of the FedExCup Playoffs.
The 29-year-old lost his playing and practising privileges at TPC Sawgrass when he joined LIV Golf, although his native flag still flies outside the clubhouse this week to acknowledge him as defending champion.
Smith becomes just the fourth Players champion to miss his title defence the following year and first for non-injury reasons, with Jerry Pate (1983), Steve Elkington (1998) and Woods (2014) the others to do so.
Sawgrass success stories missing
Five of last year’s top 10 at The Players have since moved to LIV Golf, with Crushers GC duo Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey the next two below Smith at the top of 2022 leaderboard and Harold Varner III ending the week tied-sixth.
Johnson equalled the course record with a final-round 63 in last year’s contest to jump into a share of ninth, although the two-time major champion is now absent from the event for just the second time in his professional career and the first time since 2012.
Patrick Reed, DeChambeau, Mickelson – the 2007 champion – and Brooks Koepka would have all automatically qualified via their recent major wins, had they not joined LIV, while Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer are among the former Sawgrass winners not in this week’s field.
Former Players Championship runners-up Ian Poulter, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen were all past regulars to the event, while new LIV recruit Brendan Steele misses the event for the first time since 2010.
How missed will the LIV players be?
The only seven players from inside the world’s top 50 not listed in the provisional Players Championship field on Friday are all LIV members, with Talor Gooch, Varner and Presidents Cup stars Joaquin Niemann, Abraham Ancer and Mito Pereira among those unable to take part.
The Players Championship Live
March 7, 2023, 2:00pm
Former major champion Rich Beem said: “I think we would all love to have Smith back here defending. I think he would love to be here, especially considering he makes that part of the country his home, but joining LIV is what he decided to do and he knew the repercussions of it all.
“I would love to see the likes of DJ, Koepka and Garcia here and it would be great if we found a way to get them there, but rules are rules and they all chose to go a different avenue. I think it would be better for the fans to have them, but right now they’re not allowed and it’s just the way it is.”
Sky Sports’ Nick Dougherty added: “There are not many players on LIV that I think the tournament misses, in terms of the impact they would have, but Smith is definitely one of them. The fact that he should be defending is a miss and it’s a real shame.
“One of the reasons guys love winning majors is because they knew they had beaten all the best players in the game. That’s usually the case at The Players and it won’t be this time around, because there’s no Smith, there’s no DJ (Dustin Johnson) and there’s a couple of other contenders missing too.”
Woods stays away from Sawgrass
Woods is another notable absentee from The Players field, although for a different reason to those already mentioned, with the former world No 1 electing against using the PGA Tour’s flagship event for some additional tournament practice ahead of The Masters.
Woods is a two-time winner at TPC Sawgrass, with his first coming in 2001 after holing a 60-foot putt on the famous par-three 17th that is remembered for the iconic ‘better than most’ commentary and wild celebrations.
This year’s contest marks the 10th anniversary of his other victory, where he finished two strokes clear of the chasing pack to claim one of five PGA Tour titles in 2013, while Woods remains eligible to compete in the event – despite his limited playing schedule – via his 2019 Masters success.
Woods said after the Genesis Invitational – his first official start in a non-major since October 2020 – that he is “not going to play any more than probably the majors and maybe a couple more”, leading to speculation on whether he would tee it up again ahead of his likely return to Augusta National.
The 15-time major champion then did not enter ahead of Friday’s deadline, the fourth consecutive year he has missed The Players, with his next event now likely to be The Masters from April 6-9.
The Players Championship Live
March 9, 2023, 11:30am
Stars assemble this week at Sawgrass
Although The Players’ slogan as “the strongest field in golf” comes under slightly more scrutiny this year, given the notable LIV-based absentees, there is little doubt that it still holds the deepest field for an event outside of the majors.
The initial 144-player line-up – announced on Friday – included 43 of the world’s top 50 and all-but one of the current top 50 in the FedExCup standings, with all this season’s PGA Tour winners also teeing it up at the $25m event where the winner will earn $4.5m.
Scottie Scheffler, Rahm and McIlroy will continue their dingdong battle at the top of the world rankings, with all three having the chance to end the week as world No 1 once again having all already enjoyed at least one victory and a stint in top spot in 2023.
Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele can both make big jumps towards the leading trio with a victory, while 2021 champion Justin Thomas and Max Homa – already a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this season – are among the others looking to impress.
Watch The Players throughout the week live on Sky Sports. Live coverage begins on Tuesday with the ‘Live from The Players’ show at 2pm, while the opening round is live on Thursday from 11.30am on Sky Sports Golf!