The Players Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
Rory McIlroy returns to Sawgrass to defend his Players Championship title, knowing that he will have to fend off a world-class field if he is to win again. The strongest field of the year will be in Florida to make life as difficult as possible for the world No1.
History is against him - nobody has ever successfully defended their crown. There have been multiple winners, most notably Jack Nicklaus, who won in 1974, 1976 and 1978.
The tournament is played at the Stadium Course, famous (or infamous) for the 17th hole, a par three featuring an island green that has destroyed the hopes of so many world-class golfers over the years - and will no doubt do so again. Pete Dye, who designed the course, passed away recently, and he will be sadly missed. Legend has it that it was his wife who came up with the dastardly idea of creating a par three that would sort out the men from the boys. The tournament has been dubbed golf’s fifth major. It clearly isn’t that but drama is guaranteed, especially over the finishing stretch.
The 16th hole is a par five that is easily reachable in two blows, but water and bunkers guard the green, which means that disaster lies in wait for any golfer who gets his approach wrong. The 17th hole only measures 132 yards. They are going in with a wedge. It should be straightforward. It isn’t. There is almost always a swirling wind and when the pin is located at the front right of the putting surface the water most definitely comes into play. Over the years we have seen many golfers come to this hole leading the tournament, only to walk off the green with their dreams in tatters. We have witnessed holes in one, crucial birdies - and we have seen sevens, nines and worse.
In 2013 Sergio Garcia came to the 17th hole as the joint leader at 13 under par. Less than 10 minutes later he was four behind Tiger Woods after dumping two balls in the water and signing for a seven.
Over 40 years after construction of the Stadium Course, it’s estimated that more than 100,000 golf balls find their way into the water surrounding the 17th green every year. Ask any player on the PGA TOUR and they will undoubtedly agree that the island green makes the 17th at Sawgrass one of the most intimidating holes on any golf course.
And then there is the 18th hole, a fearsome par four with water running all the way along the left-hand side and protecting the green.
Nicklaus shot 66 in the opening round of the inaugural Players Championship on a day when play was delayed twice by weather and saw 44 players finish the round on Friday morning. In the final round, delayed three times by weather and completed on Monday, Nicklaus overcame a three-shot lead by third-round leader J.C. Snead to win the first ever Players Championship.
Nicklaus would go on to win the tournament every other year (1974, 1976, 1978) for the next four years - all at different courses. Six other players have won it twice. But to this day, Nicklaus remains the only player to have won it three times.
After the tournament’s first three years saw it held in as many states, The Players found a temporary home at Sawgrass Country Club from 1977-1981. It was during the tournament’s time at Sawgrass CC that then Commissioner Deane Beman pursued his dream of building a site for the only tournament owned by the players of the PGA Tour. In 1982 it was hosted at TPC Sawgrass for the first time, with Jerry Pate claiming the title. And it has remained there ever since.
Many of the greatest players in the game have been unable to solve the puzzle that is Sawgrass, but McIlroy played magnificently 12 months ago. So can he repeat the feat?
It is a golf course that requires great course management and that means that the likes of Jon Rahm, Shane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood should all be there or thereabouts.
Apart from his blip at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he missed his first cut in 47 events, Fleetwood is enjoying a magical run at present. He seems to contend just about every time he tees it up. He comes to Sawgrass still smarting from the implied criticism he received from Paul Azinger, who belittled his achievements on the European Tour. Azinger was, of course, talking nonsense and it is no surprise that so many of the game’s luminaries have told him so. Fleetwood thrives on tough golf courses and Sawgrass should actually be made for him.
Louis Oosthuizen is long overdue another big win. He has some interesting views about the distance people are hitting the ball, which is odd given that he regularly propels the ball over 300 yards.
“You see everybody ripping the ball with a driver now, and today’s equipment means we can hit the ball longer and straighter than even when Tiger Woods started playing,” he said. "With the way everybody hits the ball so hard now, I just cannot see many players still competing at the highest level in their mid-forties. Everything is all about further is better, and I cannot believe that is good for the game. I know that I am going to be 30 yards behind the likes of Dustin Johnson and I am now using a longer driver to give me a bit more length. I am a believer in trying to shape the ball and trying to keep the ball in the fairway.
“I think we need take 20% off the length that the ball flies. The great old golf courses are no longer good enough and you just can’t keep pushing the tees back.”
It is hard to believe that Oosthuizen still only has one major to his name. He lost The Masters in a playoff to Bubba Watson in 2012. That was the year when the South African recorded an albatross at the par-five second but was eventually caught by Watson, who then proceeded to play that incredible wedge from the trees in the playoff, when he somehow managed to get the ball to move fully 40 yards from left to right in the air. And he lost again in a playoff at the 2015 Open Championship to Zach Johnson. There is no more beautiful golf swing in the game than Oosthuizen’s and he is fit and playing some fabulous golf. If he putts well, maybe, just maybe, this will be his week.
It was won in 2014 by Martin Kaymer, in 2015 by Rickie Fowler, in 2016 by Jason Day, in 2017 by Si Woo Kim, in 2018 by Webb Simpson and last year by McIlroy.
Jon Rahm. Has every shot in the book
Rory Mcilroy. Needs to eliminate that bad round he keeps throwing in
Louis Oosthuizen. Just a glorious golf swing
Jon Rahm. Will need to be patient here
Rory McIlroy. Simply the best
Louis Oosthuizen. If he putts well he will contend
Dustin Johnson. Looking to get things back on track
Rickie Fowler. Coming back into form
Webb Simpson. Hugely underrated
Tommy Fleetwood. Has a point to prove
Shane Lowry. Should love the challenge here
Justin Thomas. The bigger the event the better he seems to play
Patrick Reed. Playing some wonderful golf
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