Here are three takeaways from the Players Championship, and what it means for the rest of the 2017 season:
Bad sign for McIlroy
Si Woo Kim becoming the youngest winner in the history of the Players will likely be our lasting memory from Sawgrass -- he is a big-time ball striker with arguably the best tempo on tour, and he will contend in a lot of tournaments over the next decade -- but it managed to overshadow a more worrisome storyline that appears to be taking shape.
Is 2017 going to be another year stuck in neutral for Rory McIlroy?
That McIlroy failed to contend in the Players is hardly a big deal, especially coming off a long layoff when he didn't touch a club for a month while he took time away from golf to get married. But the fact that he aggravated the rib injury that forced him to miss five weeks early in the season, and the fact that it may take a while to adjust to new TaylorMade clubs and golf balls, seems to be an ominous sign if you were hoping for a monster year from McIlroy.
McIlroy said he thought he aggravated his rib injury during a five-hour range session while trying to prepare for the Players. And he noted that trying to adjust to his new TaylorMade equipment -- he'd been playing Callaway woods and irons this year with a Titleist ball prior to signing with TaylorMade -- was part of the reason he was grinding so hard in practice. A Monday MRI showed no additional damage, but it's hard not to wonder if it's the kind of injury that will linger all season. McIlroy joked that it even forced him to change the way he sleeps at night, which prompted some pointed questions from his wife. "I'm trying to sleep on my right side, and that's sort of facing away from Erica, and she's like, 'Why? Are you not happy with me? What's going on?'" McIlroy said. "I'm like, 'No, no, it's fine. I'm just taking care of my back.'"
Even if McIlroy's back is fine, it will be interesting to see if his decision to change equipment in the middle of the season will help or hinder his chances of adding to his major total. After Nike made the decision at the end of 2016 to exit the club-making business, McIlroy declared he would spend all of 2017 as a free agent, trying out various models before he made any relationship official. Statistically, he was having plenty of success this year (he would have been leading the PGA Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green through the Masters if he had enough rounds to qualify), but that didn't stop him from going with TaylorMade seemingly out of the blue.
The last time McIlroy switched equipment -- leaving Titleist for Nike in 2012 -- he struggled with his game for several months, losing his spot as the No. 1-ranked player in the world, and had to weather a deluge of criticism. Eventually McIlroy grooved his swing and regained his confidence, winning two majors in 2014, but he admitted afterward it was a mistake to transition so quickly to Nike.
Will there be a similar learning curve with TaylorMade? Stay tuned.
Poulter and Chamblee are good for golf
Over the years, Ian Poulter has played the role of villain so well, and done such a good job of getting under the skin of American fans at every Ryder Cup, that it's easy to understand why he has become a lightning rod for galleries in the United States. The Englishman may dish out his share of smarm, but he has mostly shown he can handle the verbal abuse that fans return in kind, and there is no doubt golf is more fun when he's involved. It was fun to see him in contention again after a year of poor finishes, and his second-place showing at Sawgrass means he likely won't have to worry about keeping his card for 2018, either. He'll be around to spar with for years to come.
That doesn't mean there isn't a line when it comes to ribbing a player, however, and several times over the weekend at the Players, fans clearly crossed it. Poulter doesn't deserve to have anyone jeering during his backswing, and he shouldn't have to endure oafish comments about his personal life during a round. He may never complete the transformation from villain to sympathetic figure the way Sergio Garcia did this year, but it would be nice if we could step back and appreciate that his general candor is good for golf. Poulter may occasionally act like an oaf, but plenty of players are just as bad and don't hear the half of it. Billy Horschel chucking a club in the direction of his caddie on Friday, and then having to sheepishly apologize via Twitter after the round, comes to mind.
There is a difference, though, between boorish taunting and reasoned, fact-based criticism, and what Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said about Poulter's round Sunday night -- "He clearly did not play to win" -- was another example of why Chamblee is good for golf in his own way. Chamblee's analysis, in which he pointed out in detail how Poulter played some of the safest shots of anyone in the field down the stretch despite trailing Kim by only two strokes for much of the day, is precisely why he's good at his job.
Chamblee catches a lot of grief on Twitter (Poulter fired back with a tweet when informed of Chamblee's comments), and there certainly are times when he lays it on a bit too thick, but he and Johnny Miller represent a refreshing antidote to the parade of players-turned-analysts we've seen over the years who refuse to utter a critical word about golf's current stars.
In a way, both Poulter and Chamblee are entertaining for the same reasons.
They're honest, yet polarizing.
It's not elementary for Watson
After another missed cut in a big tournament, it's a fair time to ask the question: What is up with Bubba Watson?
The two-time Masters champion, who was No. 4 in the world this time a year ago, continued his free fall in the Official World Golf Ranking after firing a 76-75 and missing the cut at the Players. He started the year ranked 10th, and now he's 31st, the lowest he has been since 2011.
Golf is hard, and every player goes through slumps that seem to be a normal part of the process. But lately, Watson appears to be a completely different golfer than the man who once had one of the best all-around games in the world. He's still driving it miles (he's fifth on tour in strokes gained off the tee at .810) but the rest of his game has all but disappeared.
His strokes gained around the green (minus-.455) is 200th on tour. His strokes gained putting (minus-.605) is 192nd. He's ranked 193rd in greens in regulation and 167th in birdie average.
If you don't include the Zurich Classic, a team event where he paired up with J.B. Holmes and finished seventh, Watson has finished a tournament under par just once this year, the SBS Tournament of Champions in January.