Scheffler is chasing history in The Players Championship. No one has ever repeated as champion

Scottie Scheffler hits from the bunker along the second fairway during a practice round for The Players Championship golf tournament Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
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By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods never did it. Neither did Jack Nicklaus, even before The Players Championship found its home in a former swamp now known as the TPC Sawgrass.

This is the 50th edition of the PGA Tour’s premier championship, and no one has ever defended his title. Next up is Scottie Scheffler, and the odds are as much in his favor as any of the previous winners.

That includes Woods, who only got one crack at it in 2002, didn’t break 70 and tied for 14th.

“I just think it’s a golf course where you don’t see a lot of repeat winners in general,” Scheffler said. “There’s not a guy that you have seen win on this golf course a bunch.”

Only five players have won twice on the Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass. Nicklaus won The Players three times, but that was before it moved permanently to this Pete Dye arena of endless thrills and that one (mostly) island green on the par-3 17th.

Scheffler is the No. 1 player in the world, the first time the defending champion of The Players has been atop the world ranking since Jason Day in 2016. The difference is Scheffler arrived at Sawgrass straight from a dominant performance to win at Bay Hill by five shots.

Already the best from tee-to-green, his putter finally came to life and the rest of golf’s best had every reason to be nervous.

“I’ve personally had some really, really nice ball-striking weeks,” FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland said. “But for him to have done that for so long and won so many tournaments that he’s done the last couple years is very, very impressive. Because you get into periods of times where you feel like you can’t miss and you’re hitting it on a string, but then next month it might feel a little bit difficult. He just seems to keep doing what he’s doing.”

Scheffler has been No. 1 for the last 10 months, and it’s not difficult to do the math. Along with three victories in the last year — that includes the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas — he has finished out of the top 10 only three times in 22 tournaments.

How that translates to Sawgrass is yet to be seen, even on a course where a year ago it looked as though he was playing alone. He led by six shots at one point and won by five shots, just as he did at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

History, however, is not on his side. The Stadium Course has a reputation of never favoring a single style of golf, and there is trouble just about everywhere that everyone seems to find at some point over the tournament.

“That’s why I think it’s one of the best places we play on tour, just because it really doesn’t suit one type of player,” Scheffler said. “Bomb-and-gouge doesn’t really work out here. But then you even have the shorter hitters that plot it around that can struggle here, because you got to hit it exactly where you’re looking or you’re going to be punished pretty severely.”

What has changed is The Players now needs an asterisk, but only if it claims to have the strongest and deepest field in golf. World ranking aside, golf is so divided now because of the defections to LIV Golf that all the best are not at Sawgrass — not Masters champion Jon Rahm or Cameron Smith, who conquered Sawgrass two years ago. Not Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka or Bryson DeChambeau.

And by the sound of PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, there’s not an immediate fix.

“It’s going to take time,” Monahan said of any deal with the Saudis and any solution to the fractured landscape in golf.

The Players gets started on Thursday, and if nothing else, it’s a time to return the focus to inside the ropes, at least for four days.

Xander Schauffele isn’t a fan of Monahan, saying the commissioner has “a long way to go” to regain trust. Rory McIlroy spoke out in favor of Monahan on Wednesday morning, saying he was the right man for the job and the tour was in a stronger position with new money from a group of private investors.

And then there was Scheffler, suggesting any blame for the divide should be on the players who are not at Sawgrass this week because of LIV.

“If the fans are upset, then look at the guys that left,” he said. “We had a tour, we were all together, and the people that left are no longer here. At the end of the day, that’s where the splintering comes from.”

Schauffele perhaps summarized it best.

“I think you would like to have those players playing in an ideal world, but I feel like we’re sort of beating a dead horse in this media room a little bit,” he said.