GORDON SEAY PHOTO
By TOM LaMARRE
The PGA Tour has had several memorable tournaments already this season, and this week it moves on to its flagship event, The 49th Players Championship on the famed Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
While it might be difficult to have a better finish than the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla., where upstart Kurt Kitayama outlasted several noted players on the leaderboard, there’s also plenty of promise for the so-called “Fifth Major” with 29 of the top 30 players of the World Golf Rankings in the field.
Top-ranked Jon Rahm of Spain, No. 2 Scottie Scheffler and third-ranked Rory McIlroy (pictured) of Northern Ireland have passed the No. 1 ranking back-and-forth in recent months, and if any of the three wins The Players, he will be on top.
“Rory, Jon and Scottie are kind of in a league of their own at times, and it’s just our job to go and catch them,” said Max Homa, who has risen to No. 7 in the world with victories in the Fortinet Championship at Silverado Resort in Napa and the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in La Jolla this season.
Rahm has five victories and eight top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts, but struggled to a tie for 39th last week in the API, McIlroy has won four times starting with the Tour Championship last August, while Scheffler claimed four titles including the Masters last year and added the WM Phoenix Open to his triumphs last month.
McIlroy is the only one of the three who has lifted the trophy in The Players Championship, shooting two-under-par 70 in the final round to hold off Jim Furyk by one stroke.
“It’s always good to be back here (at TPC Sawgrass),” said McIlroy, who has three other top-10 finishes in The Players. “ … I would say my relationship with this tournament has definitely changed over the years. I wasn’t a huge fan of it in (when it was played in May), so the date change to March has really been … I feel like it sort of brought the tournament back to sort of what it was.
“And I grew up watching The Players Championship. It was always this time of year, and I remember Davis Love with an incredible final round and Tiger (Woods winning). There’ have been a lot of great moments and a lot of history created here. I think it’s been great since it’s went back to this March date. I think I’ve had a little more success when it went back there, as well.
“Yeah, really it’s great to be back. I always feel like this time of the season, everything is sort of ramping up (toward the majors) and this is the first really, really, really big event. So, yeah, I’m excited to be here and can’t wait to get going.”
Among the other former champions in The Players field this week are Justin Thomas, Jason Day of Australia, Webb Simpson, Rickie Fowler, Si Woo Kim of South Korea, Matt Kuchar and Adam Scott of Australia.
Not playing is two-time winner Woods, who is still coming back from a serious right leg injury sustained in a rollover SUV accident two years ago, so apparently Woods’ next start will be next month in the Masters.
1. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – The third-ranked McIlroy seemed to be headed his fourth victory since August and back to No. 1 in the world last week in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but slipped to a tie for second. Rory is making his 13th start in The Players Championship and he won the tournament by one stroke in 2019, in addition to posting three other top-10 finishes.
2. Jon Rahm, Spain – Rahmbo had something of a hiccup last week when he tied for 39th in the API, ending his streak of 10 consecutive finishes in the top-10 around the world, including five victories. The top-ranked player in the world is making his sixth appearance in The Players, and hasn’t had much success at TPC Sawgrass, with a tie for ninth two years ago his best result.
3. Scottie Scheffler, United States – The second-ranked Scheffler could have returned to No. 1 by finishing in a tie for second or winning last week, but closed with a 73 to tie for fourth. Still, it was his sixth top-10 result of the season, including a victory in the WM Phoenix Open. He has played in The Players only twice, missing the cut in 2021 before tying for 55th last season.
4. Patrick Cantlay, United States – The fourth-ranked Cantlay won three times in 2021 and twice last year, but is winless this season with three results in the top four, including a tie for second in the Shriners, third in the Genesis and a tie for fourth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He missed the cut three times in The Players, where a tie for 22nd in 2017 is his highest finish.
5. Justin Thomas, United States – Since winning the PGA Championship last May, the ninth-ranked Thomas has finished in the top-25 on 10 occasions without claiming the 16th victory of his PGA Tour career. One of those 16 came two years ago, when he closed with 64-68 to win The Players Championship by one stroke, and he also tied for third in 2016 with a final-round 64.
6. Jason Day, Australia – Day claimed the last of his 17 professional victories in 2019, but seems to be getting close again with four straight top-10 finishes and nine results in the top-20 this season on the PGA Tour. One of those 17 victories came in the 2016 Players, when he started with 63-66 and won by four strokes. In addition, he has three other top-10s at TPC Sawgrass.
7. Xander Schauffele, United States – The sixth-ranked Schauffele, who claimed three of his seven PGA Tour victories in 2022, has finished outside the top 25 in the Genesis and the API recently after five results of 13th or better, so he’s due for a bounce-back. He tied for second in his first Players Championship start in 2018, but has missed the cut in his last three appearances.
8. Max Homa, United States – Homa has risen to No. 7 in the World Golf Rankings by winning the Fortinet and the Farmers, giving him six PGA Tour victories, in addition to finishing second in the Genesis and tying for fourth in the Sentry Tournament of Champions this season. He is making his third start in the Players, missing the cut in two years ago, but tying for 13th last year.
9. Viktor Hovland, Norway – Trying to climb back into the top-10 of the World Golf Rankings, sitting at No. 11, Hovland closed with 75 last week to tie for 10th in the API, but still it was his eighth top-20 result on the PGA Tour this season. A seven-time winner around the world, he is making his third start in the Players, having missed the cut in 2021 before a tie for ninth last year.
10. Collin Morikawa, United States – Even though the 10th-ranked Morikawa has missed the cut in two of his last three starts, he also has top-10 finishes in his other four events recently, including second in the Sentry TOC and third in the WM Phoenix Open. A two-time major champion, he tied for 41st and missed the cut in his first starts in the Players the last two years.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Tyrrell Hatton, England; Will Zalatoris, United States; Matt Fitzpatrick, England; Hideki Matsuyama, Japan; Cameron Young, United States; Jordan Spieth, United States; Si-Woo Kim, South Korea; Kurt Kitayama, United States; Corey Conners, Canada; Sungjae Im, South Korea.
1. Davis Riley, United States – Two-time winner on Korn Ferry Tour is coming off a T-8 in the API and last season lost to Sam Burns in a playoff at the Valspar among six top-10 finishes.
2. Thomas Detry, Belgium – Another two-time winner as a pro, Detry finished second in Bermuda, T-9 at Sanderson Farms and T-24 in the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week.
3. Joel Dahmen, United States – Has won three times as a pro and this season was T-3 at Mayakoba, T-9 in Houston and T-5 in RSM Classic. Best in The Players was T-12 in 2019.
4. Aaron Rai, England – The seven-time winner as a pro around the world, Rai has a T-9 in Irish Open, T-5 in the Italian Open and a T-7 in the Cadence Houston Open on PGA Tour this season.
5. Justin Suh, United States – Winner of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship in 2021 has finished T-5 in the Honda Classic and T-24 in Arnold Palmer Invitational in the last two weeks.
For first-round tee times, visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard