There are two ways to look at the tournament Americans call ‘the fifth Major’.
The first is to scoff, because a golf event is either major or not, and making a claim to their prestige risks coming off like a desperate marketing ploy.
I go a different way. I love the Players Championship, and I love that we have a tournament in May combining major-ish significance with a sort of gung-ho looseness that you don’t get at a place like Augusta.
Sawgrass is home to winners like Nicklaus, Woods and Mickelson. But it’s also been conquered by oddballs (K.J. Choi), up-and-comers who haven’t broken through (Rickie Fowler), aging stalwarts who never will (Matt Kuchar) and guys who seemed like they never would but then, finally, did (Henrik and Sergio!).
Plus, as a launching pad for the summer Majors, it always comes complete with terrific storylines.
This year is no exception. The biggest question mark on the golfing planet is Dustin Johnson, who seemed poised to actually bludgeon the entire sport of golf to death just months ago. Then he fell down some stairs, missed the Masters, and was suddenly mortal again. All eyes followed him in return at the Wells Fargo, and…drum roll…he was the second-best player on the course.
Questions answered, for now. But golf is a capricious game, and as we’ve seen over and over in the past three years, it doesn’t take much for a player to go from ‘spectacular’ to ‘merely good’.
How much will the missed opportunity at Augusta rankle if he comes back to earth? Sawgrass isn’t a course that unduly rewards big hitters – Tim Clark won here, after all – so he won’t be able to overpower the field, but his game has become so complete that it may not matter.
His form this weekend will give us our first look at whether he can live up to the promise of February and March, to put together a stunning summer.
Fresh run at greatness
Then there’s Rory McIlroy, newly married and ready for a fresh run at greatness. He won the Tour Championship at the end of last season, which seemed to promise big things for 2017. However so far we’re witnessing a familiar pattern – excellent play, good enough for top 10’s against the most competitive fields, but no actual wins.
He gave us exactly what we’ve come to expect at Augusta – a seventh-place finish, but never a real sense that he could win the thing. And it’s put his fans an odd position, in that we can’t really expect him to win a Major, or a tournament like the Players, until he actually does it.
Sure, that sounds like twisted logic, but the larger point is that the psychological edge he had in 2014, when he upped his Major total from two to four in the span of a month, has slipped away and with it the title of ‘next great golfer’. With each passing year, it’s getting harder and harder to reclaim.
That could become a familiar problem for Jordan Spieth, wild as that sounds. He picked up Rory’s fallen crown in 2015, but after the fiasco at the 2016 Masters, he hasn’t recovered his position at the sport’s apex. The Players Championship presents him with an enormous opportunity – it’s his kind of course, and he nearly won in 2014 in a final-round duel with Martin Kaymer.
This is a tournament Spieth could win, straight up, and his motivation will be high. He’s a dangerous man this week.
The Players is also the sort of tournament that can resurrect a season for players that are struggling monumentally, like Henrik Stenson – the fact that he’s coming off four straight missed cuts is a shock, considering his 2016 campaign – or just stuck in mini-ruts, like Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama.
With Stenson and Day, both former winners at Sawgrass, it’s easy to wonder if they’ve become slightly complacent after winning their long-awaited first Majors.
That would be an entirely human response, and not a huge surprise. Matsuyama’s situation is less dire – he’s fallen off his elite form since February. He still makes cuts – but he’s coming to the point, at age 25, where his talent will lead to questions about winning the big event. For him, too, Sawgrass presents a huge opportunity.
And now, your best bets for the weekend!
Jordan Spieth 10/1
Time to put my money where my mouth is. Spieth went three rounds and change without a bogey at this course in 2014 before fading against Kaymer, and on a course that requires meticulous planning, consistency, and the occasional burst of dazzling shot-making, I can’t think of anybody more likely to win.
Justin Rose 20/1
Butttt…if I had to pick one other golfer who checked off all those boxes, it would be the man who has come achingly close to winning two of the last four Green Jackets. Rose is a quiet killer, and he’s due a big win.
Alex Noren 35/1
You want a continental European pick? You got it. This is the real Swede to look out for, now that Stenson seems to be running in circles. Noren came very, very close to winning his first PGA Tour event in Charlotte last weekend, and with FOUR European Tour wins in the second half of 2016, he’s easily one of the hottest golfers in the world. Take a flyer on him, and you won’t be disappointed.
* Prices correct at time of publishing