Golf fans are in for an early treat this week as The Players Championship reverts to a March slot in the PGA calendar after being played in May for 12 years.
The fifth major, as it’s often referred to because of the strength of the field, returns to the Stadium Course at Sawgrass, a layout that was purposefully designed to stage the event for the first time in 1982 and has done so ever since.
Situated in Florida, the Stadium Course at Sawgrass is a Par-72 that measures just 7,189 yards. It is a Pete Dye design that tests a variety of skills with many holes requiring players to shape the ball from the tee to find the perfect position on the fairways from which to attack tucked away flags.
Many holes also feature water and the par-3 17th is one of the most feared holes in the world of golf and lots of balls end up in the water around this island green.
Finding fairways and greens is hard enough but, even when doing so, players are often faced with treacherously fast putts on greens that can be sucked dry by an underground irrigation system that helps the green staff maintain the putting surfaces at around 13 on the stimpmeter.
However, the real beauty of Sawgrass is that it doesn’t tend to favour any type of player, and bombers and short-but-steady merchants have all got it done here in the past. It’s just a matter of who brings their best game with them on the week and enjoys a bit of luck here and there along the way.
There’s certainly a case for taking on all the market leaders this week. Favourite Dustin Johnson has never even recorded a top-10 here, though he has posted two top-20’s on his last two visits and his best game can win anywhere.
The in-form Rory McIlroy did post three top-10s here between 2013 and 2015 but his form here has tailed off since. However, he’s not finished worse than sixth in his last five events and might contend.
Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, and Jordan Spieth have all posted a top-5 here but have never looked fully in love with the place. The same can be said of Tiger Woods, but his best game has won him two Players Championship titles. Meanwhile, Rickie Fowler has won this title in the past, but his form has dipped recently.
That means that Brooks Koepka is the first player I want to back this week as he’s a player whose form here is trending the right way having gone 35/16/11 in the last three years. His love of winning big titles should also motivate him this week and, despite a missed cut last week, he did finish second the week before.
Joining Koepka in this week’s portfolio is Xander Schauffele who finished second here on his Players debut last year and two top-20’s in his last two events, before a two-week break, suggest he’s probably been quietly targeting this event for a while.
After a return to form for both Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, this could be another good week for both halves of the Moli-Wood partnership that did so well in last year’s Ryder Cup.
Molinari’s tee-to-green prowess saw him post consecutive top-7 finishes here between 2014 and 2017 and, as his short game has improved greatly since, he could easily follow-up last week’s success. Fleetwood also improved to take seventh last year after finishing 41st the previous year on his tournament debut and he could also go close.
The 2016 Champion Si Woo Kim also deserves a chance to prove that the pressure of defending last year was just too much to handle for a young player. He has one of the best short games on tour and, though he missed his last cut, he finished third and fourth in his previous two events.
As plenty of players in the forties have also won this event over the years, the in-form Ian Poulter is a player that could put his experience of the Players Championship to good use this week. He has finished second here in 2009 and 2017 and again showed his liking for the course by finishing eleventh last year. He’s also posted four top-six finishes in his last five events and 23rd last week was a nice warm-up for an event he clearly loves.