Who has a chance at the Players?
By Torleif Sorenson on 5/6/15

The 2015 Players Championship tees off Thursday morning at 7:15 a.m. EDT at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. And while it is not yet a major championship, more and more people are equating in importance and prestige with the various World Golf Championships events.

The PGA Tour and commissioner Tim Finchem might want this, because the four men's professional major championships are all run by other organizations: The Masters by Augusta National Golf Club, the U.S. Open by the USGA, the Open Championship by the R&A, and the PGA Championship by the PGA of America. (The PGA Tour split from the PGA of America in December of 1968.)

This is one of the reasons the Tour moved the Players from March to May, so that each month in the heart of North America's golf season would have a major or important event. Finchem and the Tour decided that the Players would always end on Mother's Day — echoing the U.S. Open finish on Father's Day.

Another important change that began last year was that playoffs now have a three-hole aggregate format played over holes 16, 17, and 18. Any remaining ties after 75 holes are settled in sudden-death — similar to the PGA Championship and the Open Championship, which has a four-hole aggregate playoff.

The players at The Players

Tracking Tiger

At first glance, Tiger Woods might not seem like a candidate to win the 2015 Players, given his best finish since last year was a T-17 at the Masters Tournament last month. Woods was not eligible to play in last week's WGC-Cadillac Match Play at TPC Harding Park because he was ranked 125th in the Official World Golf Ranking, down from 116th the prior week, in fact.

Woods is also mindful that Sunday was the ninth anniversary of his father's passing. Also on Sunday, he announced that he and skiing star Lindsay Vonn had parted ways.

"Obviously it does affect me," Woods said Tuesday from TPC Sawgrass. "It is tough. There's no doubt. I'm not going to lie about that. It is tough. This three-day window is really hard. I haven't slept. It's been — these three days, May 3 and through the fifth, today, is just brutal on me, and then with obviously what happened on Sunday, it just adds to it."
For what it's worth, Woods also said on Tuesday that his short game still feels good, although he made "a couple little swing tweaks" since the Masters.

But Willett stick?

The impressive 27-year-old Danny Willett (right) from Sheffield turned professional in 2008 and has played on the European Tour since. Willett has won twice, at the 2012 BMW International Championship and the 2014 Nedbank Challenge. But last week he made himself known quite well in North America when he advanced all the way to the semi-final of the WGC-Match Play at Harding Park. While he lost 3 & 2 to eventual runner-up Gary Woodland, he defeated Jim Furyk in the third-place match.

With that impressive performance, Willett jumped from 49th to 38th in the OWGR and earned enough FedEx Cup points to get Special Temporary Membership on the PGA Tour for the rest of the 2015 season. This means that he is eligible to receive an unlimited number of sponsor exemptions as he attempts to secure his PGA Tour card for 2016. Assuming Willett does not win the Players this week, writer Brian Wacker speculates that Willett will seek an exemption into the FedEx Saint Jude Classic in Memphis the week before the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, outside Tacoma.

Before his two Euro Tour victories, Willett won the 2007 English Amateur Championship at Royal St. George's and was part of the 2007 Team Great Britain & Ireland at the 2007 Walker Cup, which Team USA won, 12½ to 11½. But Willett is no stranger to North America, having played college golf for two seasons at Jacksonville State University.

Willett might not yet be primed for a breakthrough victory at TPC Sawgrass, but the Players has produced some unexpected winners in the past, notably Craig Perks (2002), Fred Funk (2005), and Stephen Ames (2006).

Dark horses?

Virtually every big name at the top of the game is at TPC Sawgrass this week, except OWGR #21 Victor Dubuisson of France. A quick glance would suggest that Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, last week's runner-up Gary Woodland, Hunter Mahan, noted astrophotographer Jimmy Walker, Jason Day, recent winners Justin Rose and Jim Furyk, and Hideki Matsuyama may conquer the field for a huge win.

Writers elsewhere have suggested that a long hitter with good control, like Dustin Johnson, might have the best advantage. But Pete and Alice Dye have made sure that control and shot-placement reign supreme over butch power at Sawgrass. This could work against D.J. and even 2007 Players champion Phil Mickelson.

The top three

We would be foolish to bet against any of the world's top-three golfers, which are last week's WGC-Match Play champion Rory McIlroy (right), Masters winner Jordan Spieth, and Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who last won in November at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

The long view

Golf (like cycling) often makes for the best sports stories because it is built upon the three classic literary conflicts:

  1. Man versus man

  2. Man versus nature

  3. Man versus himself

With undeniably high stakes, an extended exemption, a large paycheck, and no small amount of prestige on the line, one thing is for sure: We will be watching. There should be no shortage of drama.

Have you seen an interesting golf story? Tell us about it!

Image via, Twitter, Flickr

[ comments ]
bkuehn1952 says:
No way can Rory make a 2nd consecutive "big win."

There, based on my prior track record Rory should set a course record each day and win by 10 shots.
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