The Players Championship has often been known as “golf’s fifth major” for the heritage and prestige that is associated with winning at TPC Sawgrass.
We all know there are four stand-alone major championships in the sport, but you will also be fondly remembered if you conquer the famous 17th hole and roll in the winning putt on the 18th at this most iconic venue.
However, it is the PGA Tour’s flagship event and the Tour has taken no prisoners when it comes to the treatment of LIV Golf players.
They have been suspended and commissioner Jay Monahan has made it clear that there is no way back for those who’ve joined LIV.
This is why Cameron Smith isn’t competing at Ponte Vedra Beach this week. He’ll be around the corner at home watching some of his old competitive foes battling for the coveted Players trophy.
The four major organisations have been more forgiving and will allow players like Smith to compete in 2023 and beyond, for as long as their exemptions last.
The Players Championship leaderboard will look very different this time around as 31 competitors from last season made the leap to the Saudi-financed league which is one event into its second season.
Whether you think the 2022 Open champion should be allowed to play or not is arguably irrelevant – but this didn’t stop the question being thrown at two of the PGA Tour’s star players and its commissioner.
First up was World No 1 Jon Rahm who believes PGA Tour winners should always be allowed to defend their title, unless they’ve joined LIV Golf.
Speaking to the media before the Players Championship, Rahm agreed with the Tour’s banishment of Smith as the Sawgrass conqueror of 12 months ago knew the consequences of joining LIV.
“As a defending champion, you’ve earned the right, but we’re talking about a very unique circumstance in the world of golf,” Rahm said.
“I’ve always thought about those selective events that you need to qualify for, like the CJ Cup for example.
“If you were to win, you’d automatically be into next year’s CJ Cup to defend the tournament. That’s my belief, that defending champion should always be there.
“We’re talking about different circumstances right now. Some players made a choice of going to a different golf league, knowing that they weren’t going to be allowed to play here.
“Yes, this is a massive event that is very, very close to major quality, but it is still a PGA Tour event. So with that regard. No. I don’t think just him (Cameron Smith) should be allowed to be here.”
One of Smith’s last appearances in an event on the PGA Tour came at the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews when he put on a career-best display to become a maiden major winner.
It felt like destiny that Rory McIlroy was to lift the Claret Jug at the Old Course, but it wasn’t to be once again for the Northern Irishman at the majors for a ninth year in a row.
McIlroy echoed Rahm’s thoughts on the Smith matter at Sawgrass. He made a choice to join LIV Golf, and much like his colleagues who did the same, they were suspended.
“Would it be better if the defending champion was here this week? Absolutely,” McIlroy said. “But he made a decision that he felt was the best thing for him, and he knew that decision was going to come with consequences, and one of the consequences is right now not being able to play on the PGA Tour.”
As Monahan was reminded in his session with the press at Tour HQ, Smith is local to the area which could create an intriguing dynamic with the tournament in town.
Although there are still pictures of the 29-year-old’s victory in the Sawgrass clubhouse, his car parking spot as a past winner has been taken away.
The commissioner reiterated that players who’ve moved to LIV Golf have new contracts that tie them to the rebel league and they still won’t be welcome back to the PGA Tour.
Brooks Koepka was one player reported to have buyer’s remorse over their move to LIV, but Monahan dismissed the chances of defectors making a U-turn.
“Cameron Smith had a great performance in 2022. He was a deserving champion,” Monahan said. “I think as I look at it this week and I look at the field we have here and the strength from top to bottom, I think when we leave here on Sunday night, we’re going to crown another deserving champion.
“Yes, it’s awkward. But ultimately, that’s the decision he made and we’ve got an unbelievable field here this weekend and a history and tradition that one of these 144 is going to go seek to get.”
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Could the golf ball be rolled back for everyone?