Zhang dreams of putting his way into Players history

2021-03-05 12:08:22

Chinese journeyman hoping to create own magic moments at iconic event As the PGA Tour's gold standard, The Players Championship stands apart from the rest as it showcases arguably the strongest field in golf competing on a course regarded as one of the purest tests in the game. From the event's inauguration in 1974 to moving to its permanent home at the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Florida in 1982, the Players has delivered countless defining moments in the sport. China's Zhang Xinjun will make his debut at the event next week, and having once lived in nearby Jacksonville and previously practiced regularly at Sawgrass, the 33-year-old is confident he can create his very own iconic moments at the event. "I've been longing to play at The Players Championship. I think if I can win it, it will be a huge push towards China's golf development," he said. The tournament's highlight reel down through the decades is a true treat for golf fans. In 1982, Jerry Pate celebrated his victory by tossing then tour commissioner Dean Beman and Dye into the lake hugging the 18th green. In 1994, Australian legend Greg Norman, aka the Great White Shark, devoured the elite field with a 72-hole tournament record of 24-under which has stood the test of time. In 2000, Hal Sutton successfully stared down the one and only Tiger Woods. Sutton sealed his place in golf history with the famous remark, "Be the right club today." That was uttered just as he dispatched a glorious 6-iron from 179 yards to within eight feet of the pin on the final hole for a one-shot triumph. Woods, who is recovering from his recent car accident, would create his own Players moment just a year later. During the third round, he sized up an intimidating 60-foot birdie putt with a triple breaker at the treacherous par-3 17th, which features an island green that Mark Calcavecchia once described as "like having a 3 o'clock appointment for a root canal". As Woods willed his ball into the cup in typical Tiger fashion for the most unlikely of birdies, NBC's Gary Koch added the perfect commentary, proclaiming "better than most"-three times for dramatic effect-as the ball took a few suspenseful turns and eventually disappeared down the hole. The American superstar went on to win the first of his two Players titles 24 hours later. Asian aces Boding well for Zhang's dreams of surprising the field, Asian golfers have enjoyed plenty of success at the championship. In 2011, South Korea's KJ Choi reached the peak of his illustrious career with a playoff victory over David Toms to become the first ever Asian winner at Sawgrass. Choi, now 50, recalled an intuitive feeling from his caddie, Andy Prodger, who told him after the third round: "I think you can't go back to Korea this Sunday. I don't know why but I just feel it." The Korean trailblazer calmly rolled in a three-foot par putt on the first playoff hole after Toms had missed to seal his place in Players folklore. "I finally got to win The Players. Of my eight wins, I cried the most then. I was genuinely thrilled. I think all the players desire to win this championship. Becoming the first Asian and Korean player to win, I was proud and excited," said Choi. As Asia's most successful player on the PGA Tour to date, Choi has since inspired a new wave of talents to emerge, with youngster Kim Si-woo breaking out as a rising star. Battling back from injury in the 2017 edition, Kim upset the odds to secure a stunning three-stroke win to become the youngest Players winner at age 21. "It is very special. I feel The Players is a major tournament. When I played there for the first time, it was a very special feeling. KJ won as the first Korean and I had the victory next. It means a lot to me and I'm very proud of the youngest title, since it's hard to do that at my age. Hopefully nobody will break my record. I want my name to be remembered," said Kim. Following a third career win at the recent American Express, Kim will no doubt be one of Asia's leading contenders next week. Also looking to make their mark will be Japan's Hideki Matsuyama, who has two top-10s and three top-25s in six visits to Sawgrass, the ultra-talented South Korean Im Sung-jae and Chinese Taipei's CT Pan. With two made cuts in as many appearances, Pan hopes to take advantage of the Stadium Course's strategic design, which does not favor any particular type of golfer. "The Players Championship is definitely the strongest tournament we have on tour," said Pan. "Even when you compare it to the majors, if you look at the world ranking, we have 144 of the top-ranked players in the world and it's a very strong field. It's a fairly designed golf course and every player will have a chance to win." The writer is a senior director of international marketing and communications for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur.