The Players Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
THE strongest field of the year assembles at TPC Sawgrass this week for the latest instalment in the Players Championship. The tournament is regarded by many as golf's fifth major and generally produces champions of a commensurate quality.
It was won last year by Jason Day, in 2015 by Rickie Fowler, 2014 by Martin Kaymer, 2013 by Tiger Woods, in 2012 by Matt Kuchar, in 2011 by KJ Choi and in 2010 by Tim Clark. Clark's victory was a surprise, but proved that you don't have to be a big hitter to win at Sawgrass.
Designed by Pete Dye, the course is most famous for the 17th hole, a treacherous par three featuring an island green that has seen some incredible drama over the years. When Fowler won two years ago he played the final four holes in five under par in regulation play and then birdied the 17th twice more in a playoff with Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia.
Garcia has mixed feelings about the 17th. In 2013 he was leading the tournament when he came to the hole. Fifteen minutes later he walked off the green after recording a quadruple bogey seven, having dumped three balls in the water. The Spaniard won the tournament in 2008 when Paul Goydos found the water at the 17th in a playoff with the Spaniard.
Garcia returns to Sawgrass on the crest of a wave after finally ending his waiting for his first major victory, beating Justin Rose in a thrilling climax to The Masters at Augusta in April. Many people believe that it could now be the first of many for a man who has come so close so many times, only to find every way known to man to throw it away. Now he knows that he can beat the best golfers in the world when it matters most, and if he is to win The Players again that is precisely what he will have to do.
The field includes newly-married Rory McIlroy, world No1 Dustin Johnson, defending champion Day, Fowler, Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, in-form Adam Hadwin, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Daniel Berger - in other words, a who's who of the world's best golfers. Sadly, Woods remains on the sidelines, recovering from his latest back surgery. The game has moved on without him, and so has the course.
As soon as last year's tournament finished, the diggers move in to redesign the sixth, seventh and 12th holes. As if Sawgrass were not hard enough, it has been made even more difficult, with the changes certain to increase the drama and spectacle.
So who is going to win? Your guess is as good as mine, but there are some players who will arrive here fancying their chances of picking up the winner's cheque come Sunday night.
McIlroy was bitterly disappointed to finish in a tie for seventh place at Augusta and will be determined to prove that, despite his recent marriage, he remains as focused as ever. This is a course that should suit his game. Notwithstanding the success of Clark seven years ago, the changes at Sawgrass favour big hitters who hit high, towering iron shots - and especially big hitters who find the middle of fairways. And that means it is made for McIlroy if he arrives with his A-game. As always with the Northern Irishman, much will depend on the state of his putting. If he putts well then everybody else is playing for second place, but the harsh truth is that he is infuriatingly inconsistent on the greens. And how much work has he been doing on his game since that wedding?
Fowler returns to Florida with fabulous memories. Nobody who saw his victory surge two years ago will ever forget it. It was the week when he truly emerged as a world-class golfer. Last year was not his best, but he worked hard during the brief off-season and has played some exceptional stuff in 2017. He already has one victory tucked under his belt, but was extremely unhappy about his inability to chase down Garcia and Rose at Augusta after playing himself into contention.
Rose has become one of the game's most consistent players, and he thrives under pressure and on the world's toughest courses. For all that TPC Sawgrass is a stadium course, make no mistake about the fact that it offers a ferocious test, with danger lurking everywhere. No player focus better than Rose, and no player is better when strategy is called for. He is overdue another victory, and this could be where it happens.
It is, of course, impossible to ignore the case for Johnson, who is head and shoulders above every other golfer on the planet right now.
Rickie Fowler. Great memories
Rory McIlroy. Putter is key
Justin Rose. Mr Consistency
Rickie Fowler. A big-time player
Rory McIlroy. Looking for first win as a married man
Justin Rose. Will be there or thereabouts
Daniel Berger. Class act
Sergio Garcia. On a serious high
Dustin Johnson. Ignore him at your peril
Kevin Kisner. Back to his best
Hideki Matsuyama. Due another good week
Adam Hadwin. Most improved player on the PGA Tour
Tyrrell Hatton. Loving his time in America
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