Lawrence Donegan: Can Tiger triumph at the Players Championship?

Our heavyweight golf writer weighs in on whether Woods can pack a punch at TPC Sawgrass and pick up a much-needed victory this weekend…

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The 2018 Players Championship is upon us, our annual reminder that no matter how many marketing dollars the PGA Tour is prepared to spend, and no matter photogenic and attention grabbing an “island” green happens to be (it’s not actually an island, in case you haven’t noticed), there are only four major championships.

The “fifth major”, as the PGA tried so manfully through the years to rebrand this event, comes nowhere close. It is what it is, as Tiger Woods is prone to say, which is to say the Players is a superannuated PGA Tour event, with blanket television coverage and a mind-blowing prize fund of $10.5million (matching what is on offer at the Masters).

Even for the fabulously wealthy modern tour pro, that is an enticing reward for just four days of effort.

There was a time when some big names didn’t bother making the trip to Sawgrass, Rory McIlroy amongst them – no more. The big guns are all present and correct this week.

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It would be quite a show in normal circumstances, although the PGA Tour has taken inspiration from Spinal Tap and turned the volume up to eleven by pairing Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods together for the first two rounds.

The two biggest figures in golf’s modern era were seldom paired together at their peak, so their assignation has generated most of the pre-tournament chatter, a lot of it centred around the apparent thawing in their relationship with each other. Meanwhile, there has been very little chat about their prospects of actually winning the event.

In many ways, this is understandable. The field, at least at the top end, is as strong as it could be, with McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Masters winner Patrick Reed, to name just four contenders, all either in peak form or rounding into form.

It will take some effort to beat that quartet, not to mention the likes of Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.

Woods and Mickelson have won around the TPC Sawgrass layout in the past, but the truth is it is far from their favourite course. Lefty, in particular, is no fan of its design quirks and exacting demands.

A man with an expansive imagination, Mickelson prefers a more expansive brand of golf and, normally, that doesn’t work at the Players.

Tiger has never been much of a fan either, although such was his genius at his peak he was capable of winning in the least agreeable of circumstances. Those halcyon days seem long gone although his continuing ability to make cuts on the PGA Tour suggest there remains some life in the old boy yet.

But the question remains, is there enough life left to turn the PGA Tour upside down again?

In the circumstances of a week like this, with a field as strong as this, in the face of mounting evidence of Woods’ growing limitations in world-class company, it would almost be inviting ridicule to promote him as a potential contender come Sunday afternoon. And yet….

And yet it possible to imagine circumstances where he could make a serious challenge. For one thing, there will be no great incentive to excel over the opening 36 holes than playing alongside his great Californian rival, Mickelson.

The pair might be better friends than they used to be, but they will still be out to put the other in his place. Woods will be incentivised, to say the least.

He will also be encouraged. The TPC Sawgrass layout has often produced short-hitting winners for the simple reason that its (relatively short) length takes the driver out of the players’ hands.

Once upon a time, that would have been kryptonite to Woods – but no more. The fewer times he has to hit the driver the better. That leaves the short game.

His chipping and pitching in recent months have been nothing short of magnificent, while his putting has been nothing to write home about. However, if he can somehow find his touch on the greens once Thursday comes then he will surely have the look of a contender; a strong each-way shout at least.

As for the winner? Well, Woods would be the fairytale victor of course but golf at this world-class level is a brutal affair with little room for real romance.

Yet the rules that apply to Woods also applies to others. There is little advantage to be being a great driver of the ball around TPC Sawgrass, which is bad news for the likes of McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day (albeit that he won here a couple of years ago).

Look instead towards those who hit it just long enough off the tee, and are deadly accurate from 100 yards and in.

Zach Johnson is one name that springs to mind, as does that of Jordan Spieth.

Either of those two major championship winners would be worth a look. But in the grand tradition of the Players, which has developed a habit over the years of throwing up unexpected winners (see last year’s winner, Si Woo Kim), I would favour a player such as Patrick Cantlay, one of the better young American talents and already a PGA Tour winner, or the Florida native Billy Horschel.

A victory by either would hardly register on the Richter Scale of global sport, but it would fit the profile of a tournament that has often delivered less than it promised.

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What do you think?