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Players Championship: Why Golf’s royalty won’t find it easy at Sawgrass as the journeymen strike back

The young-guns of the PGA Tour may be upstaged again at the unyielding Stadium course

Sergio Garcia

If the daydreams of the marketing gurus  at the PGA Tour revolve around Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth battling down the stretch on a Sunday afternoon, then reality landed with a  heavy, prosaic thump at the Wells Fargo Championship last weekend.

One of the premier  events on the calendar came down to a play-off between James Hahn and Roberto Castro. No offence to either  but that, my fine friends, is the golfing equivalent of a wet Thursday in Basingstoke.

For the record, Hahn won  the grand prize of $1.3m on the first extra hole (with a scruffy  par, naturally)  and added his name to list of recent winners on the PGA Tour that includes Brian Stuard, Jim Herman and Charlie Hoffman, or they  are known to all but close family and friends – Who? Who? and Remind Me Again?

This is not how it was meant to be, not in this blessed year of 2016. This was the year when golf would reclaim that place in the heart of modern sporting culture filled so thrillingly for more than a decade by Tiger Woods. Spieth. McIlroy. Day. Fowler. Bring it on!

 

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There have been flashes of that promised land. Jordan Spieth was brilliant in winning his first tournament of the year, in Hawaii; Jason Day versus Rory McIlroy in the semi-final of last month’s World Matchplay in Austin, Texas, was compelling for as long as it lasted – but so far this year has been a struggle for the dream-weavers at  PGA Tour headquarters.

But with the 2016 Players due to start in Florida this Thursday at last they have something to work with.  Remember Rickie Fowler’s sensational win here last year, when  played the last six holes on Sunday in six-under par to make it into a play-off which he then won by twice birdieing the famous par-three 17th hole?

The young American’s victory ranks as one of the most brilliant in the last 20 years on the PGA Tour, not least because it came  in the week a US golf magazine  published an anonymous  poll in which Fowler’s fellow players declared him the “most overrated” player on tour.

The American Dream

These days no-one would describe Fowler as anything other than a world-class golfer, although it would also be fair to say that not many would support the notion floated in the aftermath of last year’s win that he was the next great American player; a winner of multiple Major championships waiting to happen. Perhaps a return to the scene of last year’s victory will provide enough inspiration to fuel the American for 72 holes and not just 54.

Of course Fowler isn’t the only one in Sawgrass this week in search of inspiration. Thursday will see Jordan Spieth teeing it up competitively  for the first time since his back nine collapse on Sunday at Augusta. Given the former World No1’s  abilities and cussedness, it wouldn’t be a shock to find him challenging on Sunday afternoon. Yet like Fowler there have been failings in his game at crucial moments this season that preclude any guarantees.

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The Stadium course offers a quirky challenge, placing a greater emphasis on the short game than distance off the tee. In ordinary circumstances this would favour Spieth, who’s putting and scrambling hasn’t quite touched the heights of 2015 but is still pretty nifty.

But the deterioration in his ball-striking, so exposed at Augusta National on that fateful Sunday, is such that one has to fear for him on a Sawgrass landscape that has enough water in play to float Noah’s Ark.

Rory McIlroy has never had any problems with the quality of his ball-striking. But as is the way of things in golf, the Lord giveth but he also taketh away. You’d bet your life on Rory to hit a green from 230 yards with a five-iron in the hands. But an eight-foot left-to-right breaking putt for birdie?

Like the other young guns, McIlroy has enjoyed – endured? – a year that has come up well short of his expectations.

Is this the week it all changes? His record around the Stadium course is surprisingly decent – three top 10 finishes in his last three starts on a course that robs him of his greatest advantage over the field, his length off the tee.

The truth is Sawgrass, for all its pizzaz as a venue, has displayed unflashy taste over the years when it comes to selecting winners.

Fowler’s fireworks proved a stunning exception last year. McIlroy, who finished fourth last weekend, is simply playing too well to be ignored and is  surely due a victory in what has been a winless 2016 so far. He will hope to produce some fireworks of his own.

 

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If not then expect Sergio Garcia (who loves this place and won here in 2009 and has posted 8-3-2 finishes in the last three years) and England’s Justin Rose (who is rounding into form) to challenge.

And if not the Europeans, then look for the Stadium course to revert to type. Sure, Tiger Woods won here a couple of times, Mickelson once and of course Sergio, too.

But for every winner from the ranks of golf’s royalty,  there has been a Fred Funk, a Stephen Ames or a KJ Choi, all past Players champions who were able to take advantage of a course that offers more than a little hope for the worker bees of the PGA Tour.

There are many who fall into that category of course but perhaps none will  be as motivated as Kevin Kisner who came close before losing in that play-off to Fowler last year and who returns to the scene a much better player and possessed of the belief that this place owes him one.

What do you think?