THE PLAYERS Championship attracts a field as strong as any major, and almost all the bookmakers have named the same favourites to take the title at TPC Sawgrass this week.
Here’s an assessment of how the big ten could be expected to get on:
1. Dustin Johnson
The world-number-one is currently showing the world exactly why he is that. His last five starts read a healthy T2, 1, 1, 1, 3. The most recent of those, the tied second, came last weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship where he entered the clubhouse as leader and was only denied a play-off opportunity by a monstrous birdie putt on the 72nd from winner Brian Harman; that came of his return from a one-month injury absence, too. Furthermore, his last 12 starts have seen four wins, eight top fives and 10 top 10s. The form is undeniable.
As the saying goes, though, all good things have to come to an end and Johnson has never shown anything even close to course-form at TPC Sawgrass. The American doesn’t have a single top 25 to show from his eight appearances at THE PLAYERS, with bests of tied 28th and tied 34th and other finishes ranging from tied 57th to a missed cut. With that said, Johnson has never entered here in such a wealth of form, and now will be his best chance to put the demons to rest. But I cannot see that happening given such a poor record.
Verdict: DJ’s dominance comes to an end at TPC Sawgrass this week.
2. Jordan Spieth
Contrary to Johnson, it’s fair to say Spieth’s form is below average for his young career. His last five starts haven’t seen a single top 10; the last time that happened was late 2014. Despite that, the 23-year-old still does have a win in 2017, at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and started the year with four consecutive top 10s (three of which were top threes).
His past two years at TPC Sawgrass have been about as dire as you could expect from a player of Spieth’s calibre: two missed cuts. However, in 2014 he tied eventual winner Martin Kaymer for the lead after 54-holes having opened with a 67 and 66 but slipped away with a Sunday 74. So the Texan does know his way around this course.
Verdict: Spieth thrives when on-form (just look at 2015), but can be known to struggle when off it. His two missed cuts in 2015 and 2016 came on the back of similar veins of form to this year. Maybe not a missed cut, but I don’t think Spieth contends this week.
3. Rory McIlroy
McIlroy has a fair bit of fun around TPC Sawgrass. His last four starts have all resulted in a top 15 finish, with three being top 10. He’s been hardened by the tough nature of the course having missed his first three cuts but has comeback from that to take on the course and challenge at the top. It’s one of few big tournaments, alongside the Masters, that the Northern-Irishman is yet to get his hands on and there’s no doubt he’ll be desperate to change that soon.
For a player who’s been absent through a rib injury and only made five starts in the four months of 2017 – one of which a major and two of which WGCs – McIlroy’s form is very impressive. In such a sporadic period of tournament golf, giving him little time to find rhythm and game, four of his five 2017 starts have been top 10s and two have been top fives.
This is his first start in a month, since the Masters, however. He has shown an ability to walk back into tournament golf and talk first place, though, with almost a months hiatus before his 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play victory.
Verdict: A top-10 for McIlroy who will push the leaders and contend, but there might be others in slightly superior form who come out on top.
4. Sergio Garcia
As a previous winner here, in 2008, and two-time runner-up, in 2007 and 2015, Garcia absolutely loves TPC Sawgrass. The form is made perhaps more impressive when you consider that his play-off loss in 2015 was achieved despite constant heckling, bordering on abuse, throughout the latter stages of the tournament.
Garcia’s recent form, two wins aside, hasn’t been spectacular by any means. He does have two wins in 2017, one of course being the Masters, but in his last 12 starts he only has those two wins and one other top 10. Only three top 10s in 12 starts is a run of form that Garcia is not too familiar with in a career that includes 26 professional wins.
Life’s been pretty hectic for the Masters champion since putting on the green jacket at the start of April. He’s been back to Spain to perform the ceremonial kick-off of El Clasico, continued to plan his wedding to Angela Akins and been in the sporting spotlight all over the world. He’s not managed any tournament golf since, either. You have to question, amidst the furore of his Augusta triumph, how much attention the Spaniard has been able to devote to his game over the past month or so.
Verdict: Distractions will have gotten the better of Garcia since his Masters victory and he won’t be tournament-ready to contend.
5. Jason Day
Day is another who has had his attentions, rightly so, off the course recently. With his mother undergoing surgical procedures for lung cancer, the Australian has struggled recently and even had to withdraw as defending-champion from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play just over a month ago to focus on family life. As a result, appearances have been few and far between for the world-number-three and 2017 has seen six starts, one missed cut and only one top 10.
He is the defending-champion this year, though. His form at TPC Sawgrass is very hit or miss; he’s had six apperances which have resulted in three missed cuts, three top 20s, two top 10s and last year’s win. The pattern seems to be, though, that when he does well here his lead-up form has been good too. He had two wins and four top 10s in the five previous starts last year and two consecutive top 10s prior to his tied sixth in 2011. Where he misses the cut his form looks awfully similar to how it does this year.
Verdict: Any more than a missed cut should please Day this year, who can be forgiven for prioritising family over his game.
6. Jon Rahm
Rahm’s escalation in golf has been nothing short of astronomical. In January he earned his maiden PGA Tour title, in his rookie season, at the Farmers Insurance Open and since then his form has been exceptional. His last eight starts read quite nicely, with six top 10s, five top fives and that win. In less than four months he has rocketed from being ranked 137th in the world to his current position, 12th. In that time he has proven his ability to compete with the very best names in world golf; his only mediocre finish of late is a tied 27th at the Masters, which is impressive in itself given that debutants almost never (Spieth aside) fair well at Augusta. The only negative factor potentially hindering Rahm here is that it is his PLAYERS debut.
Verdict: Rahm will go well and don’t be surprised to see him near the top on Sunday; if you’re having a bet, Rahm as Top Debutant seems to be a certainty.
7. Rickie Fowler
The young-American is considered amongst the best players in the world to have never won a major. With his 2015 win here, though, he’s won an event as close as you could get to a major. Fowler overcame Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a play-off to claim the biggest victory of his career two years ago.
With the exception of 2012, where he finished tied second on the back of a win and a tied 10th, Fowler’s pre-PLAYERS form is pretty poor. Even prior to his 2015 win he had a missed cut at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. With three missed cuts, one tied 77th and one win at this event (all coming on the back of pretty poor form) it’s not easy to judge how Fowler fairs at TPC Sawgrass in correlation to his recent form. One things is for sure, though, he has never headed to Ponte Vedra Beach in a vein of form this rich; his last six starts have all resulted in top 20s, three top fives and one win. Strong form can only ever be a good thing.
Verdict: Having played this event seven times and found a way of winning amongst golf’s strongest field, and being in perhaps the best form of his career, Fowler has to be considered a real contender for his second PLAYERS title.
8. Hideki Matsuyama
The end of 2016 was outstanding for the current world-number-four with four wins in five outings and, stretching into 2017, seven consecutive top fives. He then beat Webb Simpson in a play-off at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February for his fifth win in two and a half months. Since then, though, the Japanese superstar has struggled to rekindle similar form. His last five starts have included a missed cut and only one top 20 as the purple patch of his career perhaps comes to an end.
He has two top 20s in three trips to TPC Sawgrass but was far more competitive in lead-up events for those finishes (a tied 11th last year and a tied ninth and a fifth the year before).
Verdict: Matsuyama will make the cut but struggle to put up a competitive score, potentially scraping into the top 20-to-30.
9. Justin Rose
Justin Rose’s 2017 has been the story of his career: consistent, steady and sporadically spectacular. He, of course, took Garcia to a play-off in the bid for his first Masters title but came up short. He has six top 20s in his eight starts this year but, despite four top fives, has only really pushed the leader at Augusta.
THE PLAYERS has never been too kind to Rose, with only one top 10 and six missed cuts in 13 starts.
Verdict: Rose hasn’t played since the Masters and doesn’t seem to get along with TPC Sawgrass. He’s a hard one to call given his consistent run this year but his inconsistent run at this event; I’m leaning towards a missed cut or low finish but wouldn’t be surprised to see him inside the top 25-or-so.
10. Justin Thomas
Before the fall of 2016 Thomas had been hanging around the big names but never quite broke through. His three wins in five starts between October and January changed that and pushed him into the world’s top 10. He’s hung inside the top 10 until now but since the most recent of his wins, the Sony Open in Hawaii, he’s struggled. There’s been seven outings since and three have been missed cuts and, other than a tied fifth at the WGC-Mexico Championship where he blew a 54-hole lead, none have been inside the top 20.
Despite the recent growth of his profile, THE PLAYERS Championship has been somewhere Thomas performs well. He only has two starts but the first was a tied 24th and last year a tied third. He hadn’t been going particularly well in the run-in last year, either, having missed the cut immediately before and had a 75th, tied 39th and tied 61st in the other previous three.
Verdict: From past evidence, Thomas doesn’t need good form to go well at THE PLAYERS, but I’m not sure he has it in him to be number one this week: top 20.
Top three of the favourites:
- Rickie Fowler
- Rory McIlroy
- Jon Rahm