Players Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
THEY still insist upon calling it golf’s fifth major and although it will never be that, the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass is one of the most eagerly-awaited tournaments of the year for a number of reasons, chief among them being the fact that it always brings together the strongest field of the season, it almost always provides a dramatic finish and it features the par-three 17th hole – the infamous island green that has been the scene of so many broken dreams over the years.
Who will ever forget Rickie Fowler’s amazing finish in 2015 when he defeated Kevin Kisner in a four-hole playoff for what was his first win in three years? He finished birdie, par, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie to make the playoff, and then birdied the 17th twice more to finally defeat Kisner. It was a performance for the ages, and one that convinced many that Fowler was the real deal and that it was surely only a matter of time before he won his first major. Now aged 29, he is still waiting.
The American is one of the most naturally gifted players on the planet and in 2014 he finished in the top five in all four majors, including two ruuners-up spots. He would be the first to admit that he has underachieved. A player with his gifts should have won more than the four PGA Tour and two European Tour titles he currently has to his name. But there were signs at The Masters, where he was second to Patrick Reed, that he might finally be ready to make the breakthrough. He has developed an unfortunate habit of getting to the top of the leaderboard after 36 holes and then spending the weekend shipping water, but he played some brilliant golf at Augusta when the heat was really on, and spoke positively afterwards about his experience.
The Players was won in 2011 by KJ Choi, in 2012 by Matt Kuchar, in 2013 by Tiger Woods, in 2014 by Martin Kaymer, in 2015 by Fowler, in 2016 by Jason Day and last year by Si-Woo Kim in what was a huge surprise. Last year’s tournament was also the one that marked a turning point for Ian Poulter, when he finished joint runner-up, secured his playing privileges for the year and went on to re-establish himself in the world’s top 50. Kim is not the only surprise winner in the event’s history – Craig Perks (2002), Fred Funk (2005), Stephen Ames (2006) and Tim Clark (2010) were all big outsiders. It is that sort of a course. A player can come to the 17th hole on the final day thinking he has the title in the bag, dump a couple of tee shots in the water, water off the green with a seven on his card and then have to regroup to face yet another challenging drive at the 18th, with more water in play.
And it is worth winning. The champion will pick up almost $2m, 600 fedEx Cup points, a five-year PGA Tour exemption, and a three-year entry to all four majors – it really can be a life-changing experience. It is also worth noting that no defending champion has ever held on to the title, and only Jack Nicklaus, Fred Couples, Davis Love, Steve Elkington and Woods ever managed to win it more than once. So that would seem to suggest that we are looking for a first-time champion, and there are plenty to choose from.
Sawgrass is a traditional stadium course, and it should be made to measure for big hitters such as Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Day and Dustin Johnson. But while there are plenty of birdies to be made, potential disaster lurks at many holes, with the real test coming at the par-five 16th, the 17th and the closing hole, which makes Fowler’s finish in 2015 all the more remarkable.
When Day won the tournament two years ago he was at the peak of his powers, hitting the ball magnificently and it seemed that he holed just about every putt he looked at. The Australian has endured some pretty tough times off the course, with his mother fighting terminal cancer. And he shocked everybody when he parted company with Colin Swatton, his long-time caddie and coach, and a man who had been a father figure to Day. They had an incredible relationship on and off the course.
“I never wanted it to turn into a toxic relationship where he’s taken me from where I am as a 12-year-old kid to where I am today, and I’m not talking to him anymore,” Day said. “I was worried if I kept it going, it was going to head that way, and I love him too much to have him not in my life because of how special he is to me.” Many knowing sages believed Day was making a huge mistake, but he has returned to the winners’ circle this year, is hitting the ball as well as ever – and is still working with Swatton as his swing coach. He is not far away from his very best form and you get the sense that another big victory may not be terribly far away.
And then there is Jordan Spieth. Yet again, he made an incredible run at The Masters, finishing in third place at a course he must wish he could play 52 weeks of the year. He has been struggling with his putting all season, although he always insisted that he wasn’t worried, that the mechanics of his stroke were just fine and that it would all work out OK for him. And he duly arrived at Augusta in April and, lo and behold, that magical, touch on the greens reappeared. Remember that we are talking about what are probably the trickiest and fastest greens these guys tackle all year and if your short game is not firing on all cylinders then it is the last place you would ever want to be, but Spieth is a one-off. Suddenly, the long putts were either disappearing into the cup or finishing stone dead, and from 12 feet and in he couldn’t miss again.
All right, so he didn’t win The Masters. But he found something and he will surely take that confidence into the rest of the season now. If only the same could be said of McIlroy, who has turned into a real Jekyll and Hyde on the greens. One week he is Jordan Spieth, the next he is Jason Dufner. When all is said and done, it doesn’t matter how far you hit the ball, it doesn’t matter how good you are with a long iron in your hands – if you don’t hole out consistently then you are going to end up with far more bad weeks than good ones. As ever, if McIlroy turns up at Sawgrass with his putting boots on, he will be very difficult to beat. If he doesn’t, he could easily miss the cut.
There will, of course, be a huge amount of attention on Tiger Woods as he continues his comeback. He has surprised everybody with the quality of some of his play. But he has surprised nobody with his waywardness from the tee. He has never been an accurate driver of the ball, depending upon his incredible powers of recovery to save the day. And while one of the most impressive aspects of his game this season has been what he has been able to do on and around the greens, you simply cannot miss as many fairways as Woods does and expect to win tournaments. It is a measure of his ability that he somehow found a way to win at Sawgrass on two occasions but those wins came when he was sharp and there remains an element of ring rust about his game.
So, other than McIlroy and Spieth, who else fits the bill as a likely first-time winner at Sawgrass? How about Chesson Hadley? Before you dismiss the thought out of hand, consider this: going into the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, he had played in 16 events, missing just two cuts and withdrawing from a further tournament because of injury. In the 13 events where he made it to the weekend, Hadley has enjoyed one runner-up finish, one third place and six top-10s.
Keep an eye also on Australian Cameron Smith. He looks like he is 10 years old (he is actually 24) but has the heart of a lion and is in form, having finished in a tie for fifth place at Augusta. Many people who know about these things believe he is destined for great things. If you have ever watched him play, you will understand why.
Jordan Spieth. Could shoot the lights out
Cameron Smith. One big win could start ball rolling
Jason Day. Has good memories of this place
Jordan Spieth. The man to beat
Cameron Smith. Face of an angel, heart of a lion
Jason Day. Looking good again
Rory McIlroy. It is all about the putting
Tiger Woods. Must find more fairways
Justin Thomas. Sawgrass should suit him
Rickie Fowler. Will hope to draw on memories of 2015
Chesson Hadley. Victory cannot be far way
Chez Reavie. Grinding out some impressive results
Jon Rahm. Needs to start enjoying his golf a little more
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