Shane Lowry will go away from The Players Championship with a new feature for one of his walls at home but also a fair amount of “what ifs” about his time at TPC Sawgrass.
The Clara man entered the final round three shots off the lead and ultimately would have needed a seven-under 65 just to force a play-off with eventual winner Cameron Smith, which was always going to be a tall order.
But to finish with a level-par 72 when he himself admitted before the round he needed to go low will not sit well with Lowry, even more so that finishing at six-under for the week dropped him outside of the top-10 and into a share of 13th.
It’s not a bad week for Lowry, particularly after Sunday’s hole-in-one at the par-three 17th, and he joked with Henni Koyack on Sky Sports that he knew what landscape he’d be picking for the next framed picture for his house.
His wild celebration will endear him to a wider audience and the memory, to go with the ace he had at the 16th at Augusta National, will be one to remember for the rest of his life. But then golfers are a rare breed who are rarely satisfied.
For that reason, he will be annoyed in the short-term at how his tournament finished in Ponte Vedra Beach, three birdies and three bogeys a rather tepid offering given Smith, only a couple of groups behind him, was noting down ten birdies on his card.
If he can take a step back and look at the bigger picture, though, he will see it as another step forward. It’s a fifth top-15 finish in his last six events and it was a second consecutive event where he stood a realistic chance at the win going into the final round. He also banked a $327,222 consolation prize.
With Major season just around the corner, Lowry’s game is trending in the right direction. Find that little bit extra he’s missing and he’s not all that far away from adding a second to the 2019 Open.
Despite ultimately not being in contention, Rory McIlroy should be pleased with his Monday performance, too, after scraping inside the cut-line by the skin of his teeth.
He saved his best for last with a bogey-free 66 to finish at three-under for the week and in a share of 33rd, an eagle and four birdies accounting for his scoring which was the second-best final round of the entire field behind Dustin Johnson’s utterly ridiculous 63.
McIlroy may have dropped one place in the world rankings, replaced by champion Smith, but the four-time Major champion at least seemed to find something positive to take forward from his final round on an otherwise forgettable week.
The Holywood man put together his best putting performance of the week on Monday afternoon, although he still only gained 0.417 strokes on the field on the greens, but, as tends to be the case with McIlroy, when the flat iron gets hot he is a formidable challenger.
Of course, getting to that stage is half the battle. He started well at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and faded, and there have been enough false dawns at Augusta National that he will need more momentum to be in contention for a Green Jacket.
This is a start, though, and perhaps in time this will be a Players Championship he looks back on with a little more fondness than now.
As for the winning of the tournament, let’s get the obvious question out of the way early. No, Cameron Smith did not mean to take such an aggressive line off the 17th tee.
“I’d be lying if I said I was aiming there,” said the newly crowned Players champion almost sheepishly. “I was probably aiming 10-feet left of that. But still wanted to stay aggressive, still wanted to make birdie.”
And no, he didn’t overcook the punch-out from the pine straw on 18.
“I thought the shot was actually going to come out quite soft because it was in amongst some pine straw, and it actually came out really nice. Definitely I was trying to hit it probably 30 yards less of that,” he explained.
“I just thought it was going to come out tumbling and just roll out on to the fairway. But just kind of come out nice, and it was unfortunate, but held it together. Great up-and-down.”
How ironic that, after one of the greatest final rounds in Players Championship history, the majority of the questions centred around a madcap final two holes from Smith, the fourth Australian to claim victory at TPC Sawgrass, following in the footsteps of Steve Elkington, Adam Scott and Jason Day.
In simple stats, it was a one-shot win for the 28-year-old. At 13-under, he ended the tournament ahead of third round leader Anirban Lahiri and walks away $3.6million richer and up to sixth in the world rankings for his efforts.
But to limit the story to two holes does a disservice to Smith’s utter brilliance at the Stadium Course.
He started the final round two shots behind Lahiri at seven-under, but by the time they reached the fourth he held the lead thanks to five birdies in a blistering start. By the time he was signing his scorecard he would have 10 noted down, tying a tournament record.
“There were a few pin spots out there that were very gettable, and being the way that the course played with all the rain, just soft and sticky, I just knew I had to make plenty of birdies,” said Smith.
“I was a few behind, I think, going into the start of the round, and just needed to get after it basically.”
His round was of the roller coaster variety, five birdies in his first six holes followed by three straight bogeys and then another four straight birdies. Standing on the 14th tee he had made just one par and was rivalling Russell Henley’s bizarre final round scorecard for weirdest of the day (Henley’s probably shades it).
But in the end, it was a day where the cream rose to the top. Smith played the best golf in the final round and even managed to overcome that mid-round wobble to take control again. For the majority of the day he was untouchable.
“I felt really comfortable on the range with my irons, and I knew if I could somehow get it in the fairway, I felt it was mine to win from the start,” reflected the Ponte Vedra Beach resident.
“I feel really comfortable on the greens around here, so I just needed to get it on the fairway, and if I could do that, then I knew I had a red hot chance. Was able to do that a little bit on the front nine at least, and then kind of got a bit wavy there at the end.”
At this stage it’s probably worth mentioning the also-rans such as Viktor Hovland, who charged up the leaderboard to tie the lead and had a chance to take the solo lead had he got up-and-down from just shy of the 12th green but instead needed nearly put it in the water and took a gut-punch of a bogey.
It perhaps says much of how the remainder of the Norwegian’s round went that he was in the headlines for getting in a verbal altercation with playing partner Daniel Berger about where to drop his ball rather than lifting a trophy.
Former US PGA champion Keegan Bradley also had his moments, getting to 12-under, but a brutal bogey-double bogey finish torpedoed his hopes. Paul Casey also had a brief dalliance with the top when he hit 11-under at the 12th but would par his way in for solo third.
That left two and Smith and Lahiri would put on a grandstand finish, although the former did it rather unintentionally.
The Australian did remarkably well to recover from a snap-hook off the 16th tee to recover a par – “I typically like to move my driver left to right, and that hole kind of sits awkward for me,” he pointed out – before that incredible tee shot on the 17th that finished four-feet from the perilously perched pin.
At 14-under, he looked home and dry, even when Lahiri – who had his own snap-hook on the par-three eighth that required the hasty rearranging of the public eating area by the green – followed him in for birdie at 17 himself to pull two shots behind, but the drama was far from over.
Smith, understandably, played it safe off the tee on the final hole and avoided the water by putting his drive in the pine straw on the other side but, inexplicably, smacked his recovery shot into the pond as, behind him, Lahiri smashed a near-perfect drive straight down the middle.
As media outlets across the world replayed footage of Scott hitting it into the water on the 72nd hole when he won in 2004, wondering if history would repeat itself only not quite so kindly on this occasion, Smith regathered himself and produced arguably the best shot of the day as he spun his pitch back to three-feet and, with a bogey, set the clubhouse target at 13-under knowing the title was his if Lahiri failed to birdie behind him.
The Indian would not succeed, a cruel twist of fate in what was otherwise a huge week for him. His approach from 161 yards missed the green short right and when the chip shot missed right as well, it was game over.
“I feel as though I’m playing the best that I’ve ever played. It’s kind of weird to think like that, the last three or four years I’ve been the guy that kind of goes from 20th to 40th in the world rankings, and then all of a sudden to be 6th is kind of weird,” added Smith.
“I feel as though I’ve put in the work and I feel as though I’ve done a lot of work on my body and I’ve put in the time. It’s nice to see all that stuff paying off.”
Chances are this will be a week nobody will forget. Five days, four rounds, three weather delays, two crucial holes at the end of the tournament and one champion who definitely won’t forget it, even if his celebrations were kept relatively muted.
“Sleep. I feel like I haven’t slept in five or six days,” laughed Smith when asked how he’d celebrate.
“It’s obviously been a long week. I’m sure there will be a few beers around the fire tonight but, yeah, I can’t wait for a good sleep.”
- Full scoring HERE