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Players Championship Preview - Fascinating Week Ahead Despite no Tiger & Dodgy Greens
Players Championship week has so far been highlighted by two notable absences. The first and most obvious is the non-appearance of the defending champion and world No. 1 Tiger Woods, who said on his website Monday that, though rehabilitation since his April 7th back surgery has been going well, recovery has been a slow process and that he still can't be sure exactly when he will be back.
The second - less evident to the watching public certainly and less weighty perhaps but no less discernible for the dedicated reader of golf content - has been the lack of discussion surrounding the tournament's status. Has talk of the Players being the fifth major finally ceased? Has the PGA Tour conceded it has no business inserting its own tournament into a very select group that is fine just the way it is thank you very much? Am I guilty of raising the issue again when it is best left well alone?
Probably. But it's only Tuesday so there's still plenty of time for someone to broach the subject and open that bothersome can of worms again.
For the moment though, apparently less hyperbole (the occasional TV commercial with superstar players commenting on how important the Players is to them notwithstanding) is allowing us the luxury of assessing the Players Championship on its own merits.
Now approaching its 41st year and with a history of elite winners, exhilarating drama at times, top-class fields and a venue that has caused much controversy but which is generally regarded these days as a worthy challenge to the world's best golfers, the Players probably has come of age and does now warrant great respect. One feels it wouldn't have for much longer, however, had Tim Finchem and the PGA Tour not rammed it down our throats so consistently. Like I say though, perhaps they will for the remainder of the week.
Phil Mickelson's comment in 2011 that winning the Players (which he did in 2007) had been among his foremost goals, along with winning majors, giving the event a seal of approval that no amount of PGA Tour overestimation and embellishment could ever buy. And it helped reduce the impact of Lee Westwood, then the world No. 1, and Rory McIlroy's (No. 6) decision to give the tournament a miss that year.
It absolutely goes without saying that neither the Englishman nor the Northern Irishman would have withdrawn from an actual major quite so casually. Well, they would never have withdrawn from a major at all, unless they were injured or had some grave personal reason not to be there.
McIlroy later stated he had regretted his decision, which he felt had been influenced by his then-manager Andrew "Chubby" Chandler of International Sports Management, and Westwood himself who might - or might not - have enjoyed showing Finchem and his Tour that he didn't really count the Players among his top priorities.
Both Westwood and McIlroy were back at TPC Sawgrass in 2012, when they failed to impress, and they both finished tied for eighth last year. They are in the field again for 2014, along with 44 others from the world's top 50 (the missing quartet is Woods, Jason Day, Victor Dubuisson and Miguel Angel Jimenez). Westwood, now ranked No. 30 after starting the year at 25, has just one top-10 finish in America since January - seventh at the Masters, but he did win for the 13th time in Asia last month at the Malaysian Open.
A win is a win, especially when you shoot 18-under and prevail by such a wide margin - seven shots in this case. But one wonders how significant his performance against just a dozen players from the world's top 100, and in so distant a corner of the golfing world, can be.
McIlroy is the more compelling story and, one supposes, a more likely contender having finished in the top 10 in four of his last five PGA Tour starts.
At the beginning of the year, the two-time major champion told the world how pumped up he was having gotten engaged, having made some progress in his legal battle against Conor Ridge and Horizon Sports (the company McIlroy joined after leaving ISM), and having become comfortable with his equipment choices.
But his stats for 2014, though impressive in some areas, betray an obvious glitch. While he still belts his driver a hearty 306.7 yards (good for fifth place on Tour) and averages 69.62 strokes per round (fourth), his putting and scrambling numbers leave much to be desired.
Westwood's work on and around the greens is much improved of late but it is he, rather than McIlroy, that has long carried the burden of an uncertain short game. McIlroy's scrambling and putting stats halfway through the season though are almost as bad as Westwood's ever were. He is currently ranked 127th in putting and 160th in scrambling.
Equally worrying for McIlroy has been a tendency this year to post a really disappointing round at some point during a tournament. At PGA National in the first week of March, the man who turned 25 last weekend took a two-shot lead into the final round but closed with a 74 then failed to win the resulting four-man playoff. In Houston a month later, a Saturday 74 rendered his Sunday 65 fairly meaningless. At the Masters, a second-round 77 meant he made the cut on the number and had to play the third round with a non-competing marker - Augusta National member Jeff Knox, who beat the then world No. 9 and tournament co-favorite by a stroke. Last week in Charlotte, McIlroy played well on the weekend, shooting 65-70, but a second-round 76 gave him too much ground to make up.
With so many good players on the tee sheet this week and no one ever winning the Waterford Crystal trophy in successive years, picking a winner at the Players is a tricky business. As if it isn't hard enough every other week on this insanely-talented, multinational tour on which any tournament winner could have started the year as low as 475th in the world - like J.B. Holmes, winner of the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday.
Phil Mickelson would be a popular winner for sure, but he's not finished in the top 10 on the PGA Tour since the Barclays Championship last August. His third-round 63 in Charlotte beat his low-round of the season by three shots, and showed how close to something like his best he might be. But can he string four consistent rounds together like he did in '07, when his worst score was a level-par 72 on a day the field could average no better than 74.41? Maybe not, but Mickelson could quite conceivably shoot two poor-to-mediocre rounds at TPC Sawgrass and still win with 64s on either side of them.
Matt Kuchar would seem an excellent choice given his victory here in 2012 and a stellar run of form of late that has seen him finish tied for fourth in San Antonio, second in Houston, tied fifth at Augusta, and first at Harbour Town, where a final-round 64 saw him catch and pass 54-hole leader Luke Donald. Should the 35-year-old world No. 5 win the Players for a second time, he could go ahead of Woods at the top of the world rankings. But Kuchar certainly isn't the only player who could topple Tiger this week.
Over the last five years, Masters champion Bubba Watson hasn't finished higher than T37 at Sawgrass where his high-flying power fades might not be quite so advantageous as they are at Augusta. But he could be looking down on the rest of the world Monday morning if he were to somehow finish in the top two.
World No. 3 Henrik Stenson only has a couple of ties for fifth on either side of the Atlantic (Pacific actually, as his one T5 on the European Tour came last month in China) to show for his season so far, but he too has won the Players before - in 2009 when a brilliant closing 66 gave him a four-shot victory over Ian Poulter. Finish inside the top six and Stenson could become the first-ever No. 1 male golfer from Sweden.
And 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott, currently No. 2, could become the second Australian - after his hero Greg Norman - to top the rankings if he completes the four rounds inside the top 16. That doesn't seem too tall an order for a former champion (2004), but it might be for a player that has missed two cuts in the last three years.
Golf fans survived not having Tiger Woods at the Masters, and they'll do just fine watching the Players without him, too. A few of the greens won't be looking their best thanks to what the Tour is calling a "misapplication of a product to help manage density and root development during the colder, winter period."
But if we can just be spared any reference to a fifth major championship, the 2014 Players should be a riveting watch.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.