10 Players to Watch: The Players Championship

  1. Dustin Johnson, United States — The top-ranked player in the world didn’t get untracked until the weekend in the Wells Fargo Championship, when he shot 67-67, including a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole and seemed to be headed for a playoff last week. However, Brian Harman came along and sank a 38-footer for birdie on the last hole to steal the victory and prevent Johnson from having a chance in extra holes to win his fourth straight start. Still, DJ tightened his grip on the top spot in the FedExCup standings as the tie for second was his sixth result in the top 10 in eight starts this year, and he has not finished out of the top three in his last five tournaments. Johnson has never played particularly well at TPC Sawgrass, with a tie for 28th last year his best result in eight appearances, but his game is a cut above the rest right now and he seems comfortable on any course, even after missing a month because of the back injury he sustained a day before the Masters.
  1. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland — Well-rested since a tie for seventh in the Masters in his third attempt to complete the Career Grand Slam, McIlroy has done everything but win this year, posting five top-10 finishes in six tournaments on both major tours, with his best solo second in the South Africa Open. He is coming off his honeymoon after being married a few weeks ago to Erica Stoll at Ashford Castle in Ireland, but if he can shake off any rust he figures to be in the hunt at ATC Sawgrass. It took a while for Rory to get the hang of the Stadium Course as he missed the cut in his first three appearances in the Players Championship, and even skipped the tournament in 2011 because he didn’t like the course. However, he figured it out and tied for eighth in 2013, tied for sixth the following year and tied for eighth again in 2015. The second-ranked McIlroy tied for 12th last year, but posted his best score on the course, an 8-under-par 64 in round two.
  1. Sergio Garcia, Spain — The Masters champion has been showing off his new Green Jacket for a month and will be well-rested after taking a break since claiming his first major title. He also won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February and leads the European Tour’s Race to Dubai while sitting 13th in the FedExCup standings. The sixth-ranked Garcia’s biggest title before winning the Masters came in the 2008 Players Championship, when he was near the lead all the way after opening with a 66, and won on the first playoff hole when Paul Goydos hit his tee shot into the water on the 17th hole. The Spaniard hit his tee shot to within four feet of the hole on the famed island green and won with a par. Garcia had a chance to win again at TPC Sawgrass two years ago, but Rickie Fowler beat him and Kevin Kisner in a playoff. There were other chances, too, as finished he second in 2007, was third in 2014, tied for fourth in 2002 and tied for eighth in 2013.
  1. Jordan Spieth, United States — Spieth’s bid to climb back toward the No. 1 ranking could get a big lift with a victory this week in the Players Championship. He claimed the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am earlier this year for his ninth PGA Tour victory at the age of 23, and has five other results in the top 10, putting him sixth in the FedExCup standings. Spieth seemed to take an instant liking to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, starting with 67-66-71 to hold the lead going to the final round in 2014. However, he closed with a 74 and slid to a tie for fourth, three strokes behind winner Martin Kaymer of Germany. The fifth-ranked Spieth shot 75-72 — 147 to miss the cut by three strokes the following year, and came back with 72-71 — 143 a year ago to miss the weekend by one stroke. After playing his first two rounds of the Players Championship in 11-under-par, he is 6-over in the last five and has not broken 70 since.
  1. Rickie Fowler, United States — Since Sergio Garcia won the Masters last month, Fowler has moved up on the list of best players without a major championship. The biggest of his four PGA Tour victories came two years ago in the Players Championship, when he trailed Garcia by five strokes midway through the final round. However, Rickie played the last six holes in 6-under-par including a brilliant approach from 239 yards for a gimme eagle on the 16th hole, to close with a 5-under 67. That put him into a three-hole aggregate playoff with Garcia and Kisner, and when Fowler and Kisner remained tied after the three, they went to one more and Rickie won with a five-foot birdie putt on the island green at No. 17. The ninth-ranked Fowler, who won the Honda Classic earlier this year, also finished two strokes behind winner Matt Kuchar in a tie for second at TPC Sawgrass in 2012, but has missed the cut in four of his five other starts.
  1. Jon Rahm, Spain — Phil Mickelson appears to have been correct when he said early this year that Rahm already is one of the best players in the world as a rookie on the PGA Tour, less than a year after he graduated from Arizona State. Rahm, who is No. 12 in the world, fourth in the FedExCup standings and third in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, captured the Farmers Insurance Open for his first PGA Tour victory in January, and reached the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play before losing to top-ranked Dustin Johnson. The Spaniard seemed to be on his way to another victory last week when he led the Wells Fargo Championship on the back nine of the final round, but he stumbled home and wound up solo fourth. That gave Rahm six finishes in the top 10 and nine in the top 25 for his rookie season, and he has yet to miss a cut in 12 starts. He has never played the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, but almost every course he sees this year is new.
  1. Jason Day, Australia — After winning eight times on the PGA Tour in the last two seasons and climbing to No. 1 in the world, Day has been a shadow of that player this year. It started when he missed the last three months of 2016 because of a back injury and he admitted he lost his concentration on the course when his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Things stabilized a bit when Day brought his mother from Australia to the United States, where she received a more positive diagnosis and underwent successful surgery. The Aussie, down to No. 3, posted a respectable tie for 22nd in the Masters and tries to become the first player to repeat in the Players Championship this week. Last year, Day led virtually from wire-to-wire after opening with a 9-under-par 63 and won by four strokes over Kevin Chappell. That was his 10th PGA Tour victory, but he hasn’t won since. Day’s only other top-10 result in six starts at TPC Sawgrass was a tie for sixth in 2011 and he missed the cut three times.
  1. Matt Kuchar, United States — Kooch got off to a bit of a slow start this year after taking the last part of 2016 off for some family time after playing through December, but seems to be getting his game back to where it was. He played undoubtedly his best golf of 2017 last month when he finished in a tie for fourth in the Masters, four strokes out of the playoff in which Sergio Garcia beat Justin Rose, and followed that with a tie for 11th in the RBC Heritage a week later. Kuchar is another player without a major title whose biggest victory came in the Players Championship. He took the lead after 36 holes in 2012 by opening with 68-68 and shot 69-70 on the weekend to win by two strokes over Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Ben Curtis and Martin Laird of Scotland. His only other top-10 finish in 13 starts at TPC Sawgrass was a tie for third last year, when he closed with a 68, but finished five strokes behind winner Jason Day.
  1. Adam Scott, Australia — Although Scott has been close at times this year, with five results in the top 25 in eight starts on the PGA Tour, he has to be disappointed to record only one finish in the top 10. Looking on the positive side, that was a tie for ninth last month on the Masters, so he has to be hoping to use that as a jump-start for the big tournaments looming on the schedule. That starts this week with the Players Championship, which he won in 2004 with a gutty par on the last hole. Scott came to the 18th hole with a two-stroke lead over Padraig Harrinton of Ireland, but after he hit a perfect drive, he knocked his approach shot into the lake to the left of the final green. He took a drop, wedged his next shot to within 10 feet and made the putt to win by a shot. Scott is making his 16th start at TPC Sawgrass and his only other top-10 finishes were a tie for eighth in his title defense in 2003 and a tie for sixth in 2007.
  1. Phil Mickelson, United States — Even though he remains winless since capturing the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield to earn a third leg of the Career Grand Slam, Lefty continues to insist his game is not that far off and his results bear that out. He tied for 18th last week in the Wells Fargo Championship after posting a tie for 22nd in the Masters, giving him eight results in the top 25 in 11 starts this season. Mickelson’s two best finishes came against strong fields in March, a tie for seventh in the WGC-Mexico Championship and a tie for fifth in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and is in another powerhouse field this week. He captured the Players Championship in 2007, leading much of the way after opening with a 5-under-par 66, before playing the weekend in 69-69 to finish two shots ahead of Sergio Garcia. Mickelson is making his 20th start at TPC Sawgrass, but his only other top-10 results were a tie for third in 2004 and a tie for eighth in 1998.

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

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