Shane Ryan: I’m loving the Players in March and I’m loving these four picks

Ladies and gents, golf heaven is upon us....

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We are officially in year zero of the New Golf Calendar. The Players Championship kicks off the start of the real golf season with a brand-spanking-new March date, Augusta keeps it going a month later, and then it’s the PGA Championship showcasing its own fresh face in May. By the time the Open Championship concludes in July, the front-loaded major calendar will be just about over, clearing the way for the PGA Tour to stage its playoffs without going head-to-head against NFL football.

It’s in my nature to be contrarian when confronted with seismic shifts like these, but the changes are so positive, and make so much sense, that all I can do today is wonder what took them so long. Everything about the transformation just plain works—the Players gets more attention as the first really big tournament of the year, the Masters gets to keep first-major status, the PGA Championship leaves the anonymous hell of August, and neither the U.S. Open or the Open Championship suffer a bit. Factor in the football-free ratings boost the playoffs will enjoy, and a longer break between the end of the season and the Ryder Cup next season, and it’s impossible to find a downside.

The changes aren’t complex, but genius is often found in simplicity, and if we can call any act of scheduling “genius” without feeling ridiculous, well…this is it.

I can’t remember feeling more excited for a professional golf season in a long time, and the schedule plays a big role—if you enjoy the sport at all, this is heaven.

In the space of four months and change, we’ll get to see four majors, the Players, and the best WGC event of the lot (the Match Play, of course). It’s a golf fan’s nirvana, plus Valhalla, plus…well, I could look up another fancy word for heaven, but you get the point.

It begins this week at Sawgrass, where the “fifth major” looks as wide open as any big event in recent memory. With Rory McIlroy absolutely refusing to win a tournament regardless of where he finds himself on Saturday night, Jordan Spieth lost in the Great Putting Desert, and the rest of the big names all seeming to take turns hoisting trophies, there’s no clear favourite here. It’d be easy to throw the laurels on Dustin Johnson, no. 1 golfer in the world and recent victor at the WGC-Mexico, but the fact is that DJ has never notched a top ten at the Players despite a decade-plus of trying, and for him, that’s really saying something.

Nor does the layout necessarily behove other ruthless bombers like Brooks Koepka, who has also yet to crack the top ten at Sawgrass (in admittedly fewer tries). There are no courses in which it’s bad to be long, of course, but uniquely among regular stops, the Players rewards a grinding, endurance-based kind of precision. A look at the recent champions who fall below superstar status tells the story: Webb Simpson, Si-Woo Kim, Rickie Fowler, Martin Kaymer, Matt Kuchar, Tim Clark. These are men who can catch fire with the irons and the flat stick, and can navigate 72 holes without making the enormous blunder.

Considering that, who should we be watching this week? Here are four choices I love in a tournament where Paddy’s paying 10 places each-way before tee off:

Justin Rose @ 16/1

If you’re going to pick a heavy hitter, he’s the one. Not only does he have a history of grinding out wins at tough courses like Congressional and Merion; there’s no reason to believe his stellar end-of-year form has gone away. With a win already to his credit in 2019, this looks like it could be a really special year for Rose, and though he’s a master at managing expectations, deep down he has to be thinking that it represents his best chance to win a second major. A fourth-place finish in 2014 shows he has the chops for the course, and this might be the start of a season to remember.

Rickie Fowler @ 20/1

This one’s pretty basic: Form + history = success. Fowler came into 2019 desperately needing a win to break his dry spell, and he got it—not without drama, but he got it—at the Phoenix Open. He won at Sawgrass with a dramatic finish in 2015, and it’s still the best win of his career. Expect him to play very well this week on a course he likes.

Jon Rahm @ 25/1

On paper, the course doesn’t seem to suit him perfectly, but there’s no ignoring how good Rahm has been to start off 2019. Five top tens in six starts is exceptional, and he’s done it by being solidly above average in almost every facet of the game. If he can putt well, he can win the Players. If his putting is just so-so, he can still break into the top ten.

Lucas Glover @ 66/1

Hey, it wouldn’t be the Players Championship without a rank-and-file PGA Tour member making a run at the trophy! If you’re looking for a long-odds American that has a great shot to do some damage at Sawgrass, look at Glover—he’s riding a streak of three straight top tens, he’s been hot since late 2018, and this has all the makings of one of those feel-good comeback stories after a rough season. All that, and he has a sixth-place finish here as recently as 2017! This man is worthy of your money.

Shane Ryan’s Selections:

Justin Rose @ 16/1
Rickie Fowler @ 20/1
John Rahm @ 25/1
Lucas Glover @ 66/1

Golfing Heaven begins at PaddyPower.com now 

What do you think?