Bryson DeChambeau's Bay Hill win over Lee Westwood superb appetiser for the coming months

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Bryson DeChambeau holes the winning putt at Bay Hill
Bryson DeChambeau holed this testing putt to complete a one-shot victory over Lee Westwood at Bay Hill
Players Championship
Date: 11-14 March Venue: Stadium Course, Sawgrass, Florida
Coverage: BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra commentary - Saturday: 21:00 GMT and Sunday: 20:00. Live text commentary of final two rounds on BBC Sport website from 19:00, with in-play highlights

Professional golf shifts up a gear with this week's Players Championship, but we have already witnessed the throaty revs of a sport displaying intoxicating powers during Bryson DeChambeau's thrilling victory over Lee Westwood last Sunday.

The American's dramatic Arnold Palmer Invitational triumph, at a testing Bay Hill, befitted a tournament bearing the great Arnie's name. It was a superb appetiser for the relentless big time action that will drive the game over the coming months.

Multiple facets were on display. Strength, precision, guile, skill and nerve were in abundance, especially from the two lead protagonists.

They coped brilliantly with the capricious nature of a sport that is played at the mercy of natural elements, most noticeably on the final hole when Westwood made a brave par after his drive cruelly finished in a sand-filled divot hole.

It was an unjust outcome after a brilliant tee shot played under the most intense pressure. A stroke behind, the 47-year-old Englishman had watched his opponent fire a magnificent drive and knew there was no margin for error.

Westwood was more than equal to the task. His swing held firm and his ball flew long and true into the middle of that must-find fairway - only to roll into a previously damaged portion of the otherwise immaculately mown area.

Judging by my social media timeline, there are many who believe free relief should be allowed because Westwood was being penalised for doing what what he was supposed to have done off the tee.

But there was no complaint from a player who knows that such setbacks are an inherent part of the game. He possessed the technique to still find the green, although accessing the precarious back right pin position was a risk too far.

Ultimately he bravely two-putted from long range and asked the question of DeChambeau to make his tournament-winning par. The US Open champion managed to do so only by ramming home a tester after his initial putt had run an uncomfortable five feet past the hole.

It was fabulous sporting drama, as it had been earlier in the round when the champion flexed his muscles to belt his drive more than 370 yards over the water at the 565-yard par-five sixth.

Inspired by an unsolicited and encouraging morning text from the stricken Tiger Woods, DeChambeau hit it into a bunker a mere 88 yards from the hole.

Westwood, taking a more conventional route by following the fairway round the lake, had more than 260 yards to the green for his approach. Yet, after both had played their second shots they were side by side in a run off area to the back of the putting surface.

Both emerged with birdie fours, wonderfully highlighting the multi-dimensional nature of how to play a hole.

Here was a grizzled old stager, knocking on the door of his 48th birthday, finding a way to compete with a major champion two decades his junior and pushing him all the way.

Some wonder whether DeChambeau's mighty hitting is ruining the sport, but it certainly did not feel that way at Bay Hill. "It's great to watch, I like it," said Westwood, a man who has won in four separate decades.

"I think golf's in a good place. I don't know why everybody is panicking about it, I think it's exciting to watch right now, there's a lot of different combinations.

"You've got Bryson, obviously, and then I suppose myself who is nearly 48 can still contend, with people like Dustin Johnson and Colin Morikawa winning last week, a young lad, he hits it a long way but you wouldn't say he hits it miles."

Westwood also highlighted Rory McIlroy as a player who is "great to watch." The Northern Irishman is the defending champion this week having won the last Players Championship to be completed two years ago.

Now 11th in the world rankings, McIlroy has slipped out of the top 10 for the first time in exactly three years. The last time he suffered such a fall he won the very next week at Bay Hill in 2018.

The former world number one admits he is still struggling for the spark to ignite his best form beyond the sort of flicker we witnessed in his first round 66 last week.

No one has successfully defended the Players title and form suggests that record will remain unaltered this week. McIlroy will attempt to defy history against the strongest field of the year on the always tricky Stadium Course at Sawgrass.

Rory's story is one of many sub-plots for a tournament capable of rewarding a wide variety of players. The range of past winners is extraordinary, encompassing the likes of short-hitting veteran Fred Funk (2005) to a supreme ball striker such as McIlroy in 2019.

The roll of honour includes titans of the game; Woods twice, Jack Nicklaus three times and world number ones such as Jason Day, Martin Kaymer, Adam Scott, David Duval, Fred Couples, Greg Norman and Nick Price.

There are also less heralded names on the trophy; Si-Woo Kim, KJ Choi, Tim Clark, Stephen Ames and Craig Perks having all enjoyed victory in the PGA Tour's biggest competition.

So who knows what to expect this week? Sadly four-times major winner Brooks Koepka is out, having suffered another injury setback, this time to his right knee.

With majors coming thick and fast in the coming months the burly Floridian will want a swift recovery, having already shown this year that he was ready to contend again for the biggest prizes.

Aged 50, Phil Mickelson - the champion in 2007 - comes into the event 101st in the world and outside the top 100 for the first time in more than 27 years, a record 1425 weeks to be precise. It is an astonishing statistic.

Just a couple of years younger, Westwood is back up to 31st in the standings and proving that in a game brimful of youthful, athletic talent there is still room for enduring fitness, desire and skill.

The Players is always an eagerly anticipated event and the dramas to which the Worksop veteran so richly contributed last week at Bay Hill have duly driven anticipation levels for what may prove another enthralling tournament.


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