When Tiger Woods made it official by not committing to The Players Championship, he freed Golf Channel/NBC producers to focus on any number of potential winners of the so-called fifth major among the 144 who will tee it up at TPC Sawgrass this week.
Indeed, with 24 of the game’s top 25 players — including the top 10 — set to compete in the PGA Tour’s flagship event, The Players boasts perhaps the deepest field of any tournament of the year. With a $10 million purse, the tourney matches the three U.S.-based majors (Masters, U.S. Open, and PGA Championship) for the richest payoff in golf.
As always, the marquee event that keeps even casual golf fans’ interest between Augusta and the United States’ national championship offers a slew of riveting story lines — even without the possibility of adding another chapter to the Tiger-Sergio Garcia saga.
For sure, all eyes will be on Jordan Spieth and how he rebounds from that ghastly 12th-hole debacle at the Masters in his first competition since Augusta. He could, with a huge performance this week, reclaim the No. 1 ranking from Jason Day.
Rickie Fowler has the chance to make history by repeating as Players champ. Not even Tiger, whose 2013 victory at TPC Sawgrass was the 78th of his 79 tour wins, has achieved that feat.
Rory McIlroy is the favorite to capture his first Players title, which would be his first tour victory of the year. We’ll see how accurate the wise guys are, since TPC Sawgrass has not exactly been Rory’s favorite track.
It’s been a little sleepy on the PGA Tour since Augusta, but there’s a lot to examine during this Players Championship week.
How will Jordan Spieth do in his first start since that Masters meltdown?
In addition to the Masters mess, Spieth has some Sawgrass woes that may plague him. He tied for fourth in his Players debut in 2014, with a final-round 74, but missed the cut last year after carding a 75 and 82. As Forbes noted, the two-time major champion became the first Masters winner since Mike Weir in 2004 to miss the Players cut.
Johnny Miller, for one, believes Spieth will rise again, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of his Masters mess, which included a chunked penalty shot into the water at No. 12 after dunking his tee shot. If he’s anything like Miller — which the 25-time tour winner contended he was — he’ll never escape nightmares about that 12th hole.
“That is going to haunt him for a long time,” Miller said last week during an NBC teleconference promoting The Players. “He’s going to be thinking with the lead on the back nine, `I hope I don’t fall apart like I did at Augusta’ . . . It’s significant, not that he can’t overcome that, but he’s going to have to go through that thought.”
Miller likened Spieth’s blunder with his own shanked shot down the stretch of a battle at Pebble Beach with Jack Nicklaus. Johnny won 24 times after that hosel rocket, which stayed with him for the rest of his career.
“I still had that haunting me on the back nine of every tournament I ever won,” Miller said. “I did have to address that, and Spieth will have to address, `Am I totally going to lay the sod over it on the back nine of a big championship like I did at Augusta?’”
Spieth took his disappointment on a much-publicized vacation with Fowler, Smylie Kaufman, and Justin Thomas, and seemed, off course, to be over the shock of how his Masters ended.
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) April 22, 2016
He got in some photo-bombing, and practiced at Oakmont in preparation for next month’s U.S. Open before arriving at Sawgrass on Monday to ready for this week’s elite event.
— lindsey vonn (@lindseyvonn) May 4, 2016
Outwardly, Spieth has put the Masters in the rear-view mirror.
“I laugh about [the Masters] now, I really do,” Spieth told reporters during a recent charity event in Pittsburgh. “But it will keep coming up. I understand that. And it’s tough every time it comes up. It was very tough to go through. At the same time, I’m very fortunate that I now have a couple major victories that I can draw on.”
While Miller seemed to commiserate with Spieth’s Masters mishap, McIlroy cut him no slack. The 27-year-old from Northern Ireland, who weathered his own Augusta misery in 2011 when he posted a final-round 80 and blew a four-shot lead, can relate better than most to what happened to Spieth.
No matter; Jordan’s on his own in figuring out how to come back strong, as McIlroy did by lapping the field by eight shots in his 2011 U.S. Open win.
“I don’t really feel sympathy for him,” McIlroy said on Newstalks’ Off The Ball show recently. “He has got two majors and he is one of the best players in the world right now and I’m sure he’ll overcome it like a lot of people have.”
Can Rory McIlroy overcome his dislike for TPC Sawgrass?
Speaking of a formerly top-ranked golfer with four major titles and a back-nine Masters collapse on his resume, McIlroy last week at Quail Hollow sounded like a man not quite in sync with his game heading into his seventh start at The Players. Fresh from a closing 66 and T4 at the Wells Fargo Championship, but with no wins in nine tour appearances this year, McIlroy hoped his game was trending toward his three most recent TPC starts — consecutive top 10s — and not his first three missed cuts.
McIlroy is the oddsmakers’ 8/1 favorite to capture his first Players, even though he conceded on Sunday that he cannot attack the venue as he does at most others by outdistancing his competitors. Danger awaits everywhere for big hitters like McIlroy who may have the length (an average 305.2 yards off the tee puts him 10th on tour in driving distance) but not the precision (133rd in driving accuracy).
With his driving edge dulled, McIlroy must lean heavily on his short game. He ranks 130th in proximity to hole from approach shots and while he’s stellar from long distance to the green (third from 200 yards), he stalls out from shorter distances (170th from 100 to 125 yards, for example).
A wobbly wedge game puts added pressure on his flat stick, which may be the least reliable club in his bag. McIlroy’s 92nd in strokes gained: putting can attest to that, though he has the ability to bury putts like this one from downtown Charlotte:
From 79 feet, 9 inches
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 7, 2016
McIlroy said on Sunday he would adopt a more conservative strategy at Sawgrass in an attempt to contend come Sunday.
Sounds like a good plan. It remains to be seen, though, whether McIlroy, in the heat of battle, can stick to it.
Can Rickie become 1st to go back-to-back at Players?
Fowler will be fighting history in his attempt to defend his Players title. No one in the 42 years of the tournament has done that; in fact, Adam Scott in 2005 was the last TPC winner even to grab a top-10 finish the next year.
It certainly wasn’t a cakewalk for Fowler last year, when he outlasted Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia in overtime after posting a final-round 67. He got there by going birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie over the last four holes to post the event’s lowest total score (11) during that stretch.
Since he prevailed at The Players, Fowler has three worldwide triumphs, including last year’s Deustche Bank Championship and in Abu Dhabi in January. His success has elevated him to No. 5 in the world, though a final-round 74 and T4 finish at Quail Hollow knocked him out of contention for No. 4 in the golf rankings.
He also enters the tournament without a U.S. victory since September. Despite that, Miller, for one, believes Fowler’s on-course demeanor could help the fashionable millennial continue to work his way into the “Big 4” conversation with Spieth, Day, and McIlroy.
— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) May 8, 2016
“Just the way he plays, he plays quickly. He doesn’t complain. Everything about his mannerisms is positive,” Miller said.
“Even when he … is talking about a double or triple, it seems like ‘No problem, I’ll get a birdie on the next hole.’ He’s not, like, pouting and facial gestures, a little bit even like Spieth, who gets down real quick and then he rebounds,” added Miller. “Rickie doesn’t even seem to get down. I think he enjoys the tour life and he enjoys the opportunity he has to excel. He’s just really got good vibes about him and people are attracted to good vibes.”
Can Jason Day keep his No. 1 ranking?
Spieth will join world No. 1 Jason Day and Branden Grace for the first two rounds of The Players. A spectacular week for the formerly top-ranked Spieth would topple Day from his perch.
But Miller and colleague Mark Rolfing peg Day as the guy with the target on his back this week. The 28-year-old Aussie has cooled off some since rolling into Augusta with two straight wins, at Bay Hill and in the WGC Match Play.
A T10 at the Masters was disappointing but he enters this week after a T5 at the weather-shortened Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
“He’s the best player. When he’s on, he was where McIlroy was where he can win by several shots,” Miller said during the conference call.
Miller noted the “pure and high long” ball-striking and talent on and around the greens of the reigning PGA champ.
A slow-mo look at Jason Day getting a little practice on No. 18 at TPC Sawgrass. https://t.co/V3DB9m94uu
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 9, 2016
“Those years he was finishing second in the majors without really winning, he couldn’t even hit a green in regulation,” said Miller. “But he just kept getting everything up and in, and he’s such a great putter. He’s in the same realm as Tiger and Phil. When he’s off, he still can score pretty well. I think that Jason is a really good pick if he just dials down off the tee a little bit and gets the ball in play.”
Rolfing concurred, maintaining that his ability to scramble was a key differentiator between Day and his opponents.
“He was a great scrambler going into this last off-season,” said Rolfing, “but when he took his 3-1/2 months off, he worked really hard coming back on his scrambling, and he’s got the best short game in the world right now.”