Ewen Murray pays tribute to runaway Players champion Webb Simpson

Webb Simpson’s dominant victory at The Players was all the more impressive for a major champion without a win in five years, and what can we expect when the tournament moves to March? Here’s Ewen Murray’s review at TPC Sawgrass…

How good was Webb Simpson at The Players Championship? Well, clearly, he was better than all the rest by some margin! He was tremendous when you think he had gone almost five years without a victory on the PGA Tour.

That’s a long time for any player, but when you’re a major champion it’s even harder to come back from, especially when you are the prime of your career.

Even going into the final round with a seven-shot lead, it’s still tough to finish it off when you haven’t experienced winning for that amount of time. But he saw it through, and his performance was first class from start to finish.

Webb had the pressure of leading for the entire weekend following his remarkable 63 on Friday afternoon, so to follow that up with a 68 and turn a five-shot lead into a seven-stroke advantage was very impressive.

Had he not found the water with his approach to the 72nd hole on Sunday, he’d have won by six shots, and to beat a field like that by such a margin is an incredible achievement.

Back to March

Next year, The Players moves back to March and we’re likely to see the Stadium Course at Sawgrass play differently, mainly because the wind tends to come in from the north at that time of year.

Holes like 16 will play a little easier as it will most likely be downwind, but the 17th could be even trickier than normal hitting into the breeze, while the 18th tee shot becomes tougher with a right-to-left crosswind pushing balls towards the water.

The course should be softer, and that’s how Pete Dye designed it to be, and I think the majority of the players will prefer the conditions in March compared to the heat and humidity of mid-May.

When The Players used to be staged in March, it was held two or three weeks before the Masters and many viewed it as the start of the season proper. Now, with the PGA Tour’s wraparound schedule, last week’s tournament was the 26th event on the calendar and it has seemed a little lost being in the middle of a run of lesser events.

I think it’s a good move to have The Players in March, but I can’t see it becoming an official fifth major.

There is too much talk of having the strongest field of the year at Sawgrass, when that is not the case. Yes, the top 50 in the world are there, but the remainder of the field are decided by the FedExCup rankings on the PGA Tour.

Danny Lee played in the final pairing with Simpson on Sunday and looked likely to be the biggest threat when he found two early birdies, but he went into the week ranked 186th in the world. I feel the strongest field is often seen at the PGA Championship, which boasts most of the world’s top 100.

Less drama at 18?

It’s a bit like Wentworth and Augusta in that you have a big tournament always held at the same venue, but the drama we often see over the last three holes at Sawgrass provides an incredible spectacle for the fans and an air of uncertainty for the players.

No lead is big enough to protect with any assurance, particularly if the wind is swirling at the 17th. There are similarities with the famous Road Hole at St Andrews, also the penultimate hole – you cannot relax until you are safely through it.

But while the 18th at St Andrews is relatively free of danger, you certainly cannot say the same about the finishing hole at Sawgrass, which is regularly one of the toughest closing holes on the PGA Tour.

However, seeing players hitting irons off the tee at 18 and then going at the green with nothing more than a nine-iron, we are getting to the stage where the golf ball is becoming a serious problem, in my opinion.

On Saturday we saw Tiger Woods hitting his “stinger” off the tee before getting his ball more or less pin-high with a 196-yard nine-iron. I can remember the days of seeing world-class professionals hitting driver, followed by a two or three-iron at the 18th.

Hal Sutton hit one of the most memorable shots on the 72nd hole in The Players, and the viewers heard him audibly hoping his full-blooded six-iron would “be the right club”.

To see modern players clipping wedges into the 18th green diminishes the drama of a truly great hole. It’s a very small target if you’re going in with upwards of a five-iron, but when you’ve got a wedge in hand, it’s really not that difficult these days.

But let that not detract from a thoroughly professional performance from Webb Simpson, who has hit a rich vein of form just a month before he attempts to win a second US Open title at Shinnecock Hills.

In the meantime, all eyes turn to Wentworth as Rory McIlroy headlines another stellar field for the BMW PGA Championship, where Alex Noren produced one of the rounds of the year last May with a closing 62 that swept him to a astonishing victory at European Tour HQ.

I’ll be there with the Sky Sports Golf team, and I look forward to your company for what is shaping up to be another memorable week at the famous West Course.