PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — For golfers named Hatton, Homa, Hovland or Hideki, happy days were ready to holler hello at the 2023 Players Championship.
But all it took was a hiccup or two to halt their Sunday charges shy of the leaderboard’s peak.
A shanked chip. A disappointing drive. A too-close encounter with the lurking liquid at the famed island green.
One by one, the early challenges to Scottie Scheffler’s dominant final round faded away Sunday against the full force of the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
“That is frustrating because I thought I executed, but that is 17 at The Players Championship,” said Max Homa, who overshot the island green to spoil his bid for victory.
A collection of golfers with 18 combined PGA Tour wins – Tyrrell Hatton, Max Homa, Viktor Hovland, Hideki Matsuyama – started more than an hour and a half before Scheffler teed off. All of them, at one point, seemed set to mount a challenge for the trophy. Whether denied by wind, water or sand, all fell short.
Literally short, in the case of Hatton’s drive at the 603-yard, par-5 ninth. Hatton tried a 3-wood off the tee, but the ball found the water hazard toward the right. He eventually made bogey at the hole.
“I was struggling with a block fade, which it’s just not a nice shot to have on a left-to-right wind. I was trying to be aggressive off the tee,” said Hatton, who at the time was 6 under for the tournament and 1 under for the round.
Hatton transformed into a golf machine thereafter, but never advanced closer than two strokes to Scheffler in spite of a record-shattering close: birdies on 10, 12 and the final five holes, a back-nine 29. Finishing second overall, he tied the back-nine course records of Kevin Chappell, Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy from the 2016 Players. Lowry notched his mark in the first round, while Chappell and McIlroy achieved theirs in the second.
Matsuyama misfires at 14
The first and apparently most serious early-group threat came from Matsuyama, Masters champion in 2021, and his barrage of birdies at Nos. 3, 6, 8, 9 and then Nos. 11, 12 and 13. At one point he shaved the lead to one stroke.
He’s walking everything in!@HidekiOfficial_ is now one back of the lead after another birdie @THEPLAYERSChamp. pic.twitter.com/QjagURssEm
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 12, 2023
But on the par-4 14th, he misjudged an approach from 204 yards and the wind made him pay. His ball drifted right, struck a hill and rolled across a cart path into rough.
It got worse. Matsuyama couldn’t clear the rough, whacking the ball barely the length of football chains. He tried again and ended up on the green but 68 feet from the pin, ultimately making double bogey. He later bogeyed 18 as well, finishing fifth at 9-under 279.
“I thought it was in hardpan, but it was soft underneath,” Matsuyama said of his third shot through a translator. “It just went right underneath it.
‘Adrenaline got me’
Matsuyama’s fall was, briefly, Homa’s gain. The second-ranked golfer in the FedEx Cup standings went birdie-eagle-birdie after the turn, even striking the pin from 307 yards on No. 12.
At 10 under and tied for second at the 17th tee, with two chances left to narrow the gap to Scheffler, Homa thought his aim at 17 was on target. He thought wrong.
The ball sailed over the green and splashed into the hazard. Homa made double bogey and finished at 8 under, tied for sixth.
“It’s such a weird hole in that it is kind of a guess,” Homa said. “All the stands, you can’t really feel the wind. We had played the last hole slightly down out of the right, so we were playing that one slightly in out of the left. I thought I hit the shot. I mean, it’s possible adrenaline got me.
“I flighted it really well. I hit a really good shot, maybe a couple paces left of where I was looking. Never thought that was going to go over the green.”
Hovland back in top 10
Less dramatic but still costly was the miscue that foiled Hovland on the front nine.
The 25-year-old from Norway aimed his tee shot on No. 5 onto the fairway, but he misfired on the second. The ball landed in rough short and right of the green, his pitch attempt sailed 16 feet past the hole and Hovland recorded a bogey.
“It was just one of those where I tried to kind of cut up against the wind to the right pin, and now that I’m actually able to hit cuts, I aimed just too far away from the pin because I was expecting the wind to blow it over to the left,” he said. “But the ball just went dead straight through the wind.”
Like Hatton, Hovland picked up the pace afterward, including four birdies on five holes (9, 11, 12 and 13). Like Hatton, he found it was too late. Hovland came in at 10 under, tied for third.
It’s his second consecutive top-10 finish in Ponte Vedra. But the trophy, for this year, remains outside his grasp.
“I was just able to kind of trust that I can start the ball over water or danger and just curve it away from there. That’s very valuable out here,” Hovland said. “Just haven’t quite put all the pieces together to be at the top, but another good week here.”