Who are the players to beat at the Players Championship? Ben Coley assesses some of the leading contenders for victory at TPC Sawgrass.
1. Jordan Spieth
Although he has failed to make the weekend in each of his last three Sawgrass starts, Jordan Spieth remains a likely Players champion of the future and could just be the man to beat this week. Spieth was fourth on debut, playing the first 60 holes of the event without making a single bogey, and he arrives with the bit between his teeth having finished with a wet sail for third place at Augusta.
Spieth said there that it could be the spark that ignites a big summer and that is easy to believe, especially as the putter appears to be warming up again. The least powerful of the world’s best players, this technical golf course suits him down to the ground and he won at another Pete Dye-design last summer. Big chance.
2. Jason Day
Back in 2016, Jason Day arrived at Sawgrass having won twice earlier in the season, opened up 63-66 and was never caught. Two years on and, having sealed his second title of 2018 at the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday, there must be every chance we are in for a repeat at a course he knows he can conquer.
Day has an excellent record at Whistling Straits, another of Pete Dye’s PGA Tour tracks, and when he is at the top of his game he is a match for anyone. His short-game in particular looked razor-sharp at Quail Hollow and while his ball-striking may need to improve, it was scrambling which won him this title and it could do so again.
3. Justin Thomas
Like many of the best players in the world, Justin Thomas does not appear to have an absolutely ideal game for Sawgrass, but that did not stop him finishing third behind Day here in 2016. Thomas has since become arguably the world’s best player, a mantle he could take officially this week, and he has certainly been the most prolific since doing the Hawaii double at the start of 2017.
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Last week he felt the putter cost him a chance to double up at Quail Hollow, but things picked up when he borrowed Rickie Fowler’s spare and if that trend continues he must be a big factor – especially knowing that a win could see him move to world No 1.
4. Rory McIlroy
Like Thomas, Rory McIlroy will have been both encouraged and frustrated by his performance in last week’s Wells Fargo Championship. An opening 68 put him in an excellent position, but a difficult second round gave McIlroy too much to do and even a Saturday 66 was not enough to get him right in contention.
More positives followed on Sunday and, after the disappointment of Augusta, he will be geared up for a big summer push. His record at Sawgrass shows three top-10 finishes and while yet to really look like winning this title, if he can dial in his irons and putt as he did at Bay Hill that could soon change.
5. Tiger Woods
There is a very real chance that Tiger Woods could complete his comeback with victory in the Players Championship. Woods putted abysmally last week yet still fared nicely at Quail Hollow, while there were enough positives in his Masters display to suggest that he Is set to contend again soon. Woods did exactly that when the Tour was last in Florida, where he lives, finishing 12th, second and fifth in three starts, and a return to the Sunshine State rates a definite positive.
Once upon a time, Sawgrass was a course which did not suit his game but that may no longer be the case as he can pick and choose when to unleash the driver. A winner here in 2013, his penultimate visit, Woods only needs to improve on the greens to have a major say.
6. Rickie Fowler
With a record of MC-MC-2-MC-77-1-MC-60, it has been feast or famine for Rickie Fowler at the Players Championship. Undoubtedly, this is a course at which he can score and the major maiden will have been really pleased with how he fared in the Masters, pushing Patrick Reed all the way with a closing birdie in his most impressive top-level display to date.
That effort raises hopes that he could go on and win the US Open or The Open this summer, and as Martin Kaymer showed in 2015, the best way to prepare for that is with a win against the very best here. Fowler might have been a factor last week but for a shocking four-putt from nowhere on Saturday but can quickly bounce back.
7. Dustin Johnson
With a best of 12th place in nine visits to Sawgrass, Dustin Johnson’s position at the top of the world rankings is under serious threat. DJ needs to finish in a share of 11th or better if he is to remain top dog and the only real encouragement for supporters is the fact that he has steadily improved here, with his last two finishes his best so far.
Johnson bagged a top-20 finish at the RBC Heritage on his latest start, another event which does not suit his game, and it will be fascinating to see if he can find a return to his best now that there is pressure on his shoulders. Even when he plays poorly, DJ tends to be around the top 20 so the battle to be next week’s No 1 could go down to the wire.
8. Henrik Stenson
Henrik Stenson was third on his first visit to Sawgrass some 12 years ago, an indication of his love for this old-school course, and it did not take long for him to become a Players champion courtesy of an excellent win in 2009. Since then, he has added four more top-20 finishes without ever threatening to win, but that could change given that his last solo start resulted in by far his best Masters finish.
Stenson will have to bounce back from a disappointing display alongside Justin Rose in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans but that is well within his compass and, with three top-six finishes in succession ahead of his return to one of his favourite courses, he looks a big player.
9. Sergio Garcia
Nobody in the field can boast a record at Sawgrass to match that of Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard is looking for his 15th cut made in succession here and as well as winning the title a decade ago, has also been runner-up twice, third, fourth and eighth. With three top-10 finishes in his last five visits, Garcia remains a massive factor at this course, where his ball-striking and creativity are big weapons.
There will be some concerns around his tame Masters defence, but Garcia has had time to overcome that disappointment and will have enjoyed playing team golf with Rafa Cabrera Bello in New Orleans.
10. Zach Johnson
Finally, my strongest fancy in terms of an each-way bet – Zach Johnson. Like Garcia, he boasts an enviable record at Sawgrass with 12 cuts made in 13 visits, including second place in 2012. Encouragingly, all of his best efforts here came when he had been in good form during the spring and that is very much the case this time, the two-time major winner having been fifth in Texas last time when leading with a round to go.
The one thing which has stopped him from winning since he landed The Open in 2015 has been the putter, but there have been positives in that department too of late and at a course he loves, Johnson looks a huge each-way player.
11. Patrick Cantlay 12. Jon Rahm 13. Justin Rose 14. Paul Casey 15. Francesco Molinari
Sleepers: Branden Grace, Kevin Streelman, Chris Kirk, Kevin Chappell, Bud Cauley