10 to Watch at The Players
It may be the 46th Players Championship, but this year’s edition inaugurates a new era for the biggest tournament on the PGA Tour schedule. Following a decade spent in the balmier Floridian climate of May, the event has switched back to its old date of March, preceding the Masters and kicking off a series of prestigious events that will be played each month through the summer and July’s Open at Royal Portrush.
This is all part of a revamped look for the game’s most lucrative circuit, accommodating the PGA Championship’s fresh placeholder in May and narrowing the season to conclude with the FedEx Cup in August. Whether this all enhances or detracts from THE PLAYERS (as those in Ponte Vedra Beach like to market it) remains to be seen.
However, the showpiece does hold a unique spot on the calendar. Much is made of the status of the event and whether it should be considered a “major” – a branded quartet of championships that was more or less invented over half a century ago. Ultimately, if an alien came to Earth and was tasked with objectively rebooting golf without any knowledge of the history, then the biggest tournament on the biggest tour would absolutely be viewed as a major.
But let’s just enjoy the Players for what it is – a significant tournament played on an iconic and generally thrilling venue, although one not without its detractors. TPC Sawgrass is a striking course that was designed to entertain and challenge the best, if not to frustrate them. Perhaps the greatest argument in its favour is the wide variety of champions that have been crowned here – a reflection of the deep quality of the field, which is arguably the strongest of the year.
Identifying potential winners at Sawgrass is a test as the layout would appear on the surface to favour no particular kind of golfer, but the softer and cooler conditions of the early spring could prove a factor. Here are ten names – some obvious, others less so – to keep an eye on throughout the coverage the week.
Winner in 2015, Fowler produced a miraculous finish to claim the title, which was viewed as his potential breakthrough coming the season after the popular Californian was an ever-present in the top five of the major championships. But it didn’t quite happen, but his runner-up at last season's Masters was the sign that he remains a contender, and his recent success at the Phoenix Open - the first victory of his 30s - suggests that the best may be yet to come for the American.
His comparative lack of wider recognition could be testament to the difficulty some have in spelling his name, but the 25-year-old Schauffele is an exceptional player, who has already shown his adaptiveness to the game's premier events. Winner of the Tour Championship in 2017, he claimed the WGC HSBC Champions in China last October, before adding January's Tournament of Champions. Even more relevant, perhaps, was his runner-up in the Open at Carnoustie and a second-place finish back in May at the Players Championship. He's certainly one to watch at Sawgrass.
It has been 15 years since the Australian won at Sawgrass, a reflection of his impressive longevity at the top, but the 38-year-old returns to this corner of Florida with more optimism than in recent seasons. Improvement last year was highlighted by a run at the PGA Championship, but that form has carried into 2019 with a runner-up finish at Torrey Pines and top ten at Riviera. Most crucially, his previously maligned putting stroke has been transformed, and he sits at 18th on the PGA Tour's Strokes Gained Putting statistical ranking. He was 165th last year. if Adam Scott holes putts, he is a major contender.
The infectiously likeable Englishman has been a star of the past two years, winning the Race to Dubai, finishing runner-up at the U.S. Open, and forming a successful partnership with close friend Francesco Molinari at the Ryder Cup. Next on his list is surely a victory in the United States, and a tie for third at last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational suggests that he's approaching those high levels once again. There has never been an English champion at Sawgrass, where the man from Southport finished in a tie for seventh back in May.
The former world number one hasn't missed a weekend since his shock performance at Carnoustie in July. This year, the 25-year-old has already posted two third place finishes and a runner-up at Riviera. Overshadowed by those who have won events, the 2017 PGA champion leads the tour in scoring average, underlining his consistent play. He is yet to catch alight on Sawgrass, but the new Players Championship trophy would look appealing alongside that Wanamaker from Quail Hollow.
For a time, it felt like Marc Leishman was a perennial contender in the majors, including a playoff loss at St Andrews in 2015, but he has become a more consistent winner in recent years, securing two PGA Tour victories in 2017, and the CIMB Classic in October. The big Australian doesn't have the most glowing of records at Sawgrass in recent times, but we've already seen him record three top fives this calendar year and the Players would be a significant elevation to his career.
The prodigious American perhaps hasn't fulfilled the heights of his potential, but he has been impressively consistent since winning last year's Phoenix Open, accumulating the top ten finishes, including at the PGA Championship. Sitting at sixth on the PGA Tour's scoring average for 2019, he comes to a venue where he's shot several excellent rounds without quite putting together the full package for the tournament. Maybe this is the week to change that.
Two years ago, the charismatic Englishman more or less resurrected his career with a superb and unexpected runner-up finish at Sawgrass. During the months since, the 43-year-old won again - at the Houston Open - before restoring himself to Europe's Ryder Cup team, playing his part at Le Golf National. His recent tie for third at the WGC Mexico Championship illustrates that he can compete with the strongest fields, and he will expect a strong performance in Florida.
Winner here in 2008, the Spaniard was engulfed in controversy at the Saudi International, when he was disqualified after damaging several greens, but that unfortunate story masked what has been an encouraging few months for 2017 Masters champion. Since failing to qualify for the FedEx Cup, the 39-year-old has played in 11 events and finished in the top ten of nine of them, including recent showings at the Honda Classic and WGC Mexico. The Ryder Cup's record points scorer is gearing himself up for another big victory, and it may be here for a second time.
The 28-year-old makes his debut at TPC Sawgrass, so wouldn't be an obvious contender based on record and form, but his freshness could be an asset when presented with a layout that will play slightly different to the past decade. It's relatively new for everyone, in other words. However, what makes the Englishman a striking player is his intensity and self-belief, a mentality that contributed to three wins last year on the European Tour, not to mention a runner-up in the DP World Tour Championship. This season, he has been second in the Dubai Desert Classic and was in the mix at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Winning here is perhaps too much of a leap at this stage, but it won't be for a lack of trying.
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