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Preview: The Players Championship

Preview: The Players Championship

Sports Mole previews the 2023 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, including predictions and a course guide.

After a stunning and eventful week at Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the world’s golfing elite reconvene at TPC Sawgrass this week for golf’s unofficial ‘fifth major’ – The Players Championship.

Cameron Smith is the defending champion, but the Australian will not be present to defend his crown following his defection to LIV Golf at the end of last year.

The Players Championship preview

Cameron Smith displays the champions trophy after winning The Players Championship golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass on March 14, 2022© Reuters

It says a lot about how tumultuous the golfing world is at present, when the top three from last year’s Players Championship have all been refused entry this year.

Smith, along with Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey, were the best performers at Sawgrass in 2022, but none of them will compete at the 2023 event after joining LIV.

Twenty players who would have been eligible to compete based on their recent major and PGA Tour performances have been refused entry due to LIV Golf defections.

However, that will not detract from any of the entertainment or the standard of golf to come this week, as recent events on the PGA Tour have shown that it is still in a great place, with the bigger tournaments providing fantastic battles and finales.

Kurt Kitayama surprised many by taking the Arnold Palmer Invitational crown last week, marking his first win on tour, as a stacked leaderboard fought for the title on Sunday evening.

Rory McIlroy enters the week in fine form after his determined fightback from being two-over-par during his first round to finishing just one stroke away from a playoff.

Rory McIlroy on his way to winning the Tour Championship and Fedex Cup on August 28, 2022.© Reuters

The Northern Irishman won here at Sawgrass in 2019 and has four top ten finishes in his last nine appearances at the Players, so it is no surprise he comes in as one of the hot favourites.

While McIlroy performed stoutly to get himself back in contention last week, there was an uncharacteristic collapse from Spaniard Jon Rahm, who held the lead after round one, but would ultimately finish over-par for the tournament after a disastrous weekend.

That was the first time the world number one has finished outside the top-10 this season, having already won three events in 2023, which is why he remains the outright favourite to claim a first Players Championship crown of his career here.

Justin Thomas already has that accolade in his collection, having won in 2021, and he is also the current US PGA champion, but he is slightly out of sorts at the moment, having made just one top-10 in five events this year.

Another player struggling for form is the man Thomas edged out in that US PGA triumph, Will Zalatoris, as the young American has struggled to recapture the form he showed last year after returning from a back injury.

Two men on the rise again though, are some of the stars of the mid-2010s, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, as the duo have shown remarkable improvements of late after some challenging years which almost completely derailed their respective careers.

Fowler is another former winner, taking the crown in 2015, and after returning to former coach Butch Harmon, he has begun making cuts and threatening the top of the leaderboard at the weekend again.

Current Masters champion Scottie Scheffler arguably represents America’s strongest challenger to win in Florida this week.

Scottie Scheffler during the final round of the Masters on April 10, 2022.© Reuters

Had Scheffler’s putter been a little more favourable last week at Bay Hill, he may have been the one to take the title, but an overall frustrating week meant he had to settle for a tied-fourth finish.

There were a few surprising names below the cut mark at the API, with Collin Morikawa, Hideki Matsuyama and Sam Burns all hoping for a drastic improvement at Sawgrass after packing their bags after just two rounds last week.

Among the rest of the European contingent, England’s Tyrrell Hatton performed well at Bay Hill, but Viktor Hovland and US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick look most likely to mount a challenge at this year’s Players Championship.

One slight disappointment will be the absence of Tiger Woods, as the legendary figure is expected to wait until the Masters in April before making his next appearance.

Course guide

Justin Thomas plays his shot from the 17th tee during the third round of The Players Championship golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass on March 13, 2022© Reuters

When it comes to the Players Championship every year, many eyes are drawn towards the infamous ‘island green’ on the 17th hole.

The iconic par three, almost entirely covered by water, represents the most daunting challenge on what is already a rather difficult course, depending on the weather.

As many as 50 balls have gone into the water here during a single round, back in 2007, when windy conditions made the green simply unreachable for many.

Byeong-hun An made an octuple-bogey here in 2021, but the worst score goes to Bob Tway who needed 12 strokes in 2005.

While the 17th is the most eye-catching hole on the course, the 18th represents another unsettling challenge for the golfers, with water running down the entire left-hand side of this long par four.

It offers a psychological challenge to any golfer who may be leading going into the 72nd hole of the competition, but risk and reward means that birdies are also often easily attainable here.

All 18 holes have water hazards within them, with differing levels of jeopardy, and can make for some very high scores, while the Floridian weather also plays a huge role in how the scoring will go.

The weather delays at last year’s tournament were unprecedented, as persistent rain meant the second round was not completed until Sunday lunchtime, leading to a Monday evening finish.

SM words green background

We say: Scottie Scheffler to win

As previously mentioned, the beauty of the big events of the PGA Tour, so far this year especially, has been the sheer abundance of talent battling it out for the title during the final round.

Last week was no exception, and it should be the same here for the PGA Tour’s most coveted prize.

McIlroy may not be too far away come Sunday, but his putting must improve if he is to get over the line, either here, or in any of 2023’s majors.

Rahm will be determined to bounce back after his collapse last week and to show off his credentials as world number one.

Kitayama’s win at Bay Hill showed also that no matter how many big names are challenging, anything can happen, so even those outside the top 20 can not be discounted.

However, it is tough to see past our tip to win, Scheffler, because even though he failed to win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational while being the favourite going into the back nine on Sunday, he is a regular challenger, and is often capable of going on a hot streak of birdies at exactly the right time.

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