10 to Watch in the Players

1. Jordan Spieth, United States — Even though he didn’t advance beyond pool play in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in San Francisco last week, you can’t say Spieth cooled off. Lee Westwood knocked him out in a tough match, 1 up, but the 21-year-old was 15-under-par for 49 holes in his three rounds and would have been tied for the lead had it been a stroke-play tournament. On the other hand, he will be more rested for the Players Championship than Rory McIlroy and others who went deep into match play at TPC Harding Park. The Masters champion tied for fourth in his first appearance at TPC Sawgrass last year, holding a shire of the lead entering the final round before closed with a 2-over-par 74.

2. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland — The Irishman reminded everyone who is the best player in the world with a tour de force in the WGC-Cadillac Championship after Jordan Spieth had stolen some of his thunder with a brilliant run in recent months. McIlroy, who turned 26 on Monday, played brilliant golf at times and showed amazing grit at others in posting a 7-0 record at TPC Harding Park. Although he’s young, there might be a little fatigue factor to deal with after a long Sunday, when he finished off one match and won the semifinals and final. He made no secret that he did not like TPC Sawgrass at first sight, but tied for eighth and tied for sixth the last two years in the Players.

3. Justin Rose, England — Rosy got off to a slow start his year, but has turned it around by tying for second behind Jordan Spieth in the Masters and winning the Zurich Classic of New Orleans two weeks ago. He did not get past pool play in the WGC-Cadillac Championship, but continued to play well with a 2-1 record, so he could be ready to content in the Players. The Englishman mostly struggled in his first nine appearances in the Players Championship before he broke the par of 72 all four days last year, opening with a 5-under-par 67 and closing with a 69 to tie for fourth, three strokes behind champion Martin Kaymer of Germany.

4. Tiger Woods, United States — No matter where he tees it up, Woods is a player to keep your eye on, perhaps now more than ever because you never know what he’s going to do. After a miserable 2014 because of back surgery, he played sparingly early this year until he contended most of the way in the Masters before tying for 17th. Tiger captured the Players Championship in 2001 and 2013, and if he somehow would win this week he would join Jack Nicklaus as the only player to win the so-called Fifth Major three times, and the first to win three times at TPC Sawgrass. He has not played since Augusta and said the wrist/hand injury he sustained in the final round has healed.

5. Phil Mickelson, United States — Another player who has not played competitively since the Masters, in which he tied for second behind Jordan Spieth, Lefty is probably could go in either direction in the Players Championship, like Tiger Woods. That’s especially true because Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, where Mickelson won in 2007, can be very unforgiving. He skipped the WGC-Cadillac Championship because of personal reasons, but he has a way of stepping up his game for the big events. Three of his last four top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour have come in the major championships, and while this is not one of the Grand Slam events, it’s the next-best thing.

6. Jim Furyk, United States — After winning the RBC Heritage three weeks ago to break a winless streak that stretched for nearly five years, the 44-year-old Furyk again played brilliantly in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in San Francisco. He had No. 1 Rory McIlroy on the ropes before losing on the final hole of the semifinals and wound up fourth when he also lost the consolation match to Danny Willett of England. Furyk, who will be making his 20th start in the Players Championship, has only four top-10 finishes at TPC Sawgrass, but last year he wound up one stroke behind winner Martin Kaymer of Germany.

7. Sergio Garcia, Spain — The Spaniard has had trouble getting going this season after a very good 2013, but showed some signs in a tie for 17th in the Masters that he might be getting close to his best stuff. It could be this week in the Players Championship, which he won in 2008 for the biggest victory of his career by beating Paul Goydos with a par on the first playoff hole, the infamous 17th with the island green. Garcia also finished second, two strokes behind Phil Mickelson, in 2008, and last year was in the hunt virtually all the way before finishing third, two shots behind champion Martin Kaymer of Germany.

8. Henrik Stenson, Sweden — Stenson seemed to be building toward something big, perhaps becoming the first Swedish man to win a major golf championship, when he finished second twice and fourth twice in his four tournaments before the Masters. Then he was laid low by the flu, although he still tied for 19th at Augusta, and he said last week the effects were lingering when he went 1-2 in pool play at the WGC-Cadillac Championship in San Francisco. The Players Championship, which he won in 2009 by four strokes over Ian Poulter of England, might be the place for him to regain his form.

9. Billy Horschel, United States — The reigning FedEx Cup champion finally has gotten his season headed in the right direction recently when he finished solo third in the Valero Texas before making a strong run in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. After beating Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner, he had a 2-up lead over world Mo. 1 Rory McIlroy through 16 holes before the world No. 1 took the last two holes of regulation and won on the 20th hole. Horschel missed the cut in his first Players Championship two years ago, but closed with a 5-under-par 67 last year to tie for 26th.

10. Martin Kaymer, Germany — It’s been a season to forget so far for Kaymer, but this is where he heated up last season to be the favorite for Player of the Year before Rory McIlroy got white-hot late in the summer. After missing the cut in three consecutive events, he went 1-2 in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship last week in San Francisco, losing in extra holes both times. However, he should have some good vibes this week at TPC Sawgrass, where he led most of the way in the Players last year after opening with a 9-under-par 63 and holding on to win by one stroke over Jim Furyk thanks to a 30-foot putt on the 17th hole. A month later, he captured the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, becoming the first player to win both tournaments in the same season.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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