Players Championship 2012: 25 Early Predictions for Golf's 'Fifth Major'

Jimmy Grappone@cltsportshubCorrespondent IApril 30, 2012

Players Championship 2012: 25 Early Predictions for Golf's 'Fifth Major'

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    The PLAYERS Championship at Sawgrass, golf’s unofficial “fifth major,” is just around the corner and with it comes the PGA’s biggest purse, one of the strongest fields of the year and my list of 25 early predictions for the tourney.

    How will Tiger play? Will Rory McIlroy or Luke Donald emerge as the world’s number one? How many balls will end up in the drink next to the famous island green at the par-3 17th?

    Will K.J. Choi defend his title? WWBD (What Will Bubba Do)? And what color will young Rickie Fowler wear on Sunday?

    The answers to several of these questions and how to fix your slice are all revealed on the following slides.

World Golf Rankings: Who Will Leave the PLAYERS Ranked No. 1?

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    Heading into the final week before THE PLAYERS Championship, England's Luke Donald holds a slight edge over Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy as the world's top ranked golfer.

    Donald, who finished in third place at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans">Zurich Classic of New Orleans, needed just a top-seven finish in Louisiana to overcome McIlroy in the Official World Golf Ranking.

    McIlroy and Donald have each held the title of world's best golfer on multiple occasions in 2012.

    The outcome of this Wells Fargo Championship, April 30–May 6, 2012, in Charlotte, NC could go a long way to determining who will enter THE PLAYERS with the top ranking.

    McIlroy owns the Quail Hollow course record with a final-round 62 when he won at the PGA Tour's Charlotte stop in 2010, though he missed the cut in 2011.

    I predict a strong finish for McIlroy at THE PLAYERS that will leave him as the world's No. 1 golfer at the end of the week.

    Lee Westwood (ENG) is the No. 3 ranked golfer in the world and Americans Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan round out the top five.

FedExCup Rankings: How Will Top 5 Change After TPC?

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    The FedExCup has gained credibility and cache among PGA players and fans each year since its inception in 2007, and FedEx recently signed on for five more years as the title sponsor for the PGA Tour's points system and playoffs.

    FedExCup Top 5 (as of April 30, 2012)

    1. Hunter Mahan
    2. Bubba Watson
    3. Phil Mickelson
    4. Carl Pettersson
    5. Johnson Wagner

    Victories go a long way in determining FedExCup points, so it is no surprise that Hunter Mahan sits atop the FedExCup standings as the PGA Tour's only two-time winner so far in 2012.

    A win by Rory McIlroy (currently 6th) or Luke Donald (11th) at THE PLAYERS could vault either player into the top-two.

    Wagner was an early FedExCup leader thanks to his red-hot start in January, and he has been slowly moving down the list.

    A top-25 finish should keep him in the top-5 for now, though he will need another win this year to enter the PGA Tour playoffs in the top-ten in FedExCup standings.

International Success

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    Scotland's Sandy Lyle, who is about to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, became the first international player to win The PLAYERS in 1987.

    International players have won four straight PLAYERS Championship titles and they have claimed seven of the last ten PLAYERS titles at TPC Sawgrass.

    Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods figure to be among the Americans in contention to win the 2012 PLAYERS, though success at this tournament has favored the international players in recent years.

    Past 10 Winners of The PLAYERS Championship

    2011: KJ Choi (South Korea)
    2010: Tim Clark (South Africa)
    2009: Henrik Stenson (Sweden)
    2008: Sergio Garcia (Spain)
    2007: Phil Mickelson (United States)
    2006: Stephen Ames (Canada)
    2005: Fred Funk (United States)
    2004: Adam Scott (Australia)
    2003: Davis Love III (United States)
    2002: Craig Perks (New Zealand)

     

Big Name Players Who Will Miss the Cut

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    Don't be silly. Of course Tiger Woods will make the cut at the 2012 PLAYERS Championship.

    But every year there are big name players who miss the cut.

    Here are five players who could be in danger packing up their bags after Friday's round.

    1. Rickie Fowler: Fowler is coming off a 10th-place finish at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, but his inconsistent play has kept him out of the top-25 in all but two tournaments this year. Fowler has missed two cuts in 11 events this year and he will have to play well to avoid the cut against an exceptional field at THE PLAYERS.

    2. Stewart Cink: Cink has only finished six of the ten tournaments he has entered in 2012 with three missed cuts and a W/D. Cink, No. 129 in FedExCup points, is off to uncharacteristically poor start this season.

    3. Ricky Barnes: Barnes has not cracked the top-40 in a tournament outside of his third-place finish at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February and he has been cut in three of the last five tournaments he has entered.

    4. Lucas Glover: Glover has been plagued by a knee injury that kept him out for the first two months of the season and it has been slow going since he's returned. Glover has a T82, 69th and T66 to go along with a pair of missed cuts in the five tournaments he has entered so far in 2012.

    5. Camillo Villegas: Villegas, famous for his spider-man stance for reading putts, has not been reading them well enough in 2012 with four missed cuts and a W/D in ten events. Villegas is coming off of his best finish of the season, T18, at the Zurich Classic and he will have to continue to build on his performance in New Orleans to avoid being sent home for the weekend.

Risk/Reward at No. 16

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    The par-5 16th hole at TPC Sawgrass may be the last real opportunity for scoring at THE PLAYERS and it is certainly the biggest risk/reward hole on the back-nine.

    Players who need to gain a couple of strokes down the final stretch can certainly take aim at the 16th green with their second shot to produce an eagle opportunity, though they risk hitting the ball into the water and scoring bogey or worse.

    Less aggressive players, or those not shooting for the lead with three holes to go on Sunday, will likely set up for a third-shot wedge into the green and a makeable birdie putt and a certain par.

    But no matter how the final round of THE PLAYERS shakes out, No. 16 is sure to provide some excitement among the final ten groups.

More Memorable Moments at No. 17

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    The famed island green on the 17th hole at Sawgrass is among the most recognizable holes in all of golf.

    The hole that was originally supposed to be a peninsula turned into an island and the rest is history.

    So who will re-write history in 2012?

    How many balls will wind up in the water? How many holes-in-one, or holes-in-three ala Fred Couples, will we see? And will anyone match the 60-foot triple-break putt that Tiger Woods made the year he won in 2001?

    Memorable shots are impossible to predict other than that there will be some along the way.

    But with No. 17 being played approximately 450 times throughout THE PLAYERS, I will put the over/under on wet balls at 45 and the number of holes-in-one at two.

     

Avoiding Temptation on No. 18

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    Championships are won and lost on the 18th hole at just about any golf course on the PGA Tour and the 18th at TPC Sawgrass is no exception, using every aspect of a player's mental and physical approach to the game.

    The key to playing No. 18 successfully is to play a safe tee-shot while advancing the ball far enough to have a shot at the green.

    It is crucial to keep the water hazard to the left out of play and to avoid the woods to the right at all costs.

    The fairway is not exceedingly narrow, but it is very important for players to land in the fairway with a low-to-mid iron shot into the sloping green if they expect to score on this hole.

    Though it may be tempting to drive the ball out over the water as far as possible to shorten the hole, the best chance to score par or better on the final hole is to play it safe and you just may have a birdie putt to take home the trophy. 

     

Belly Putters: Bigger Is Not Always Better

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    There is currently an epidemic of belly-putter usage on the PGA Tour.

    What was once a universal symbol of aging golfers on par with high pants and straw hats, the belly putter has infiltrated the younger generation of PGA golfers.

    I'm sorry, but how can a ladies man like Adam Scott, at the ripe young age of 32, get away with carrying a putter in his bag that comes up to his elbows?

    Heck, Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship with a belly putter in 2011 and Phil Mickelson has even tried one on for size, though he has since returned to a standard-length putter.

    Like it, love it or hate it, belly putters will be prevalent at THE PLAYERS in 2012, though they will eventually go the way of Zubaz pants once everyone accepts that they have no place among players under the age of 40.

Mother's Day PINK out

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    Real men wear pink, and there will be a whole lot of pink at Sawgrass on Championship Sunday, which also happens to be Mother's Day.

    From the PLAYERS website:

    With the final round of THE PLAYERS 2012 set for Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, tournament officials announced that a “Pink Out” will take place on Championship Sunday in celebration of mothers and in support of breast cancer awareness.

    All spectators, caddies, staff and players will be encouraged to wear pink on Sunday in honor of mothers everywhere and to help raise breast cancer awareness and money for the local Donna Foundation charity in .

    The question is, what shade of pink Puma gear will Rickie Fowler wear and will he wear one solid color from head to toe?

    I'm going with fuchsia.

Is It Time for Lee Westwood to Win a "Major?"

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    Lee Westwood, the world's third-ranked player and a third-place finisher in the 2012 Masters, has been knocking on the door of a major championship for the past few seasons.

    With three top-5s in five events this season, Westwood will be considered among a handful of favorites at THE PLAYERS Championship again this season, and a victory at TPC Sawgrass would have to be considered the biggest victory of his career.

    Westwood finished in a tie for fourth-place at the 2010 PLAYERS and he will be in contention again at the 2012 PLAYERS, though I am picking another player from across the pond to take home the trophy this year.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-10

Cut Line Over/Under

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    The cut-line at THE PLAYERS for the last ten years is a study in probability theory. Four times the cut-line has been even-par; three times it has been over-par; and three times it has been under-par.

    THE PLAYERS Cut Line Since 2002

    2002: +2
    2003: E
    2004: -1
    2005: -1
    2006: E
    2007: +3
    2008: +2
    2009: E
    2010: -2
    2011: E
    2012: ?

    The cut-line of the 2012 PLAYERS Championship will be 1-over par.

Player Prediction: Keegan Bradley

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    Keegan Bradley is an up-and-coming star on the PGA Tour looking for another big win to solidify his reputation after winning twice during his rookie season in 2011.

    The nephew of LPGA Hall of Famer, Pat Bradley, Keegan Bradley has three top-10s in 11 events in 2012 and he finished in the top-25 at nine straight events before coming in 27th at the Masters.

    The 2011 PGA Championship winner and PGA Rookie of the Year, Bradley will have plenty of time to prepare for THE PLAYERS after missing his first cut of the year during last weekend's Zurich Classic of New Orleans and skipping the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte this week.

    Bradley plays with power and precision and he will use both as he plays his way into contention at THE PLAYERS.

    He can win this event.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-10

Player Prediction: K.J. Choi

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    K.J. Choi, winner of the 2011 PLAYERS, has struggled to finish anywhere close to the top of a leaderboard in 2012 since a fifth-place performance at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in the first tournament of the PGA season.

    The 42-year old South Korean is 79th on the money list despite already playing in ten tournaments and he is coming off of a 39th place finish at New Orleans.

    Choi has good memories of winning a playoff at THE PLAYERS a year ago and he will have to recapture some of the same magic that catapulted him to a victory, or he may struggle to make the cut.

    I believe K.J. Choi will play on the weekend, but he will have an early tee-time.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Outside of Top-25

Player Prediction: Steve Stricker

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    Most weeks, all Steve Stricker has to do is show up and you can pencil him in for a top-ten finish.

    However, 2012 has not been all peaches and cream for Stricker since winning the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.

    Since winning the PGA Tour's first event of the season, Stricker has either finished in the top-10 or  he has found himself pushing for 40th and collecting a paycheck.

    Stricker finished strongly with a sixth-place finish at the Zurich Classic and he has one more week to hone his game at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte where he always seems to play well.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-10

Player Prediction: Johnson Wagner

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    Johnson Wagner, who currently stands fifth in the 2012 FedEX Cup standings, is having a breakout season in 2012.

    Wagner has four top-10 finishes in 12 starts so far this season and he followed up a victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii with a second-place finish at the Humana Challenge in January 2012.

    However, the mustachioed Wagner missed the cut in each of his past two starts: the Masters and the Valero Texas Open.

    Fans will hear Wagner's name often in the early rounds and he could make a leaderboard appearance as late as the third-round before fading out of contention on his way to a respectable top-25 finish.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-25

Player Prediction: Ryan Palmer

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    Ryan Palmer has been hitting the ball well lately, but he had not been getting the results he sought until a record-breaking performance on moving day at the Zurich Classic this weekend.

    Thanks to Palmer's putter, he shot a course-record 64 in the third-round of the New Orleans tournament and he finished the weekend tied for fourth place.

    When you are hitting the ball great and your putting finally catches up, that makes you an instant contender.

    Palmer will have to roll in his fair share of 30-foot putts to truly be in contention, but if he can consistently make putts inside of ten feet, he will finish near the top of the leaderboard.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-10

Player Prediction: Adam Scott

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    THE PLAYERS Championship has been a hit-or-miss tournament for for Adam Scott throughout his career.

    Adam Scott won the event in 2004 and had a top-10 finish in 2007, though he missed the cut in 2009 and 2011.

    In four official tournaments in 2012, Adam Scott has one top-10 finish and he has finished in the top-25 three times.

    Scott has played well since joining up with Tiger's former caddie, Steve Williams, in 2011, and he finished tied for eighth in his most recent start at The Masters.

    As long as Scott gets off to a good start in the opening two rounds, I expect him to be somewhere on the leaderboard on Championship Sunday at Sawgrass.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-10

     

Player Prediction: Sergio Garcia

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    Sergio Garcia may be the most talented player in the world to have never won a championship, though Luke Donald and Lee Westwood fans are sure to disagree.

    Garcia has performed well at THE PLAYERS in the past, especially when the leaders do not go particularly low, but he will be in contention all week.

    Garcia will need to shoot four rounds in the 60s to have a shot at winning the tournament this year and that is not likely to happen, though he will finish THE PLAYERS on or close to the leaderboard.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-10

Double-Digits Below Par Needed to Get into Top 5

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    TPC at Sawgrass is not the most forgiving course, but it is capable of surrendering low scores at THE PLAYERS Championship, just as long as those scores do not balloon on the 16th, 17th and 18th holes.

    Greg Norman set the tournament record with a four-round score of -24 in 1996, and while no one will go that low at Sawgrass in 2012, the 2012 PLAYERS champion will have to shoot at least -14 to win in 72 holes.

    At least five players will shoot 10-under par or better to set the pace at THE PLAYERS and the winner will come from this group.

Player Prediction: Bubba Watson

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    Bubba Watson is the story of the year in the PGA this season after winning his first Masters just days after he and his wife, Angie, adopted their one-month-old son, Caleb.

    And for those who have not been paying attention all season, he has finished in the top-25 of all nine tournaments he has entered in 2012, along with four top-10 finishes.

    Watson, who is skipping the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, is coming off of an 18th-place finish at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and he has to be due for a slip-up at some point this season.

    Though he will finish in the money, young Caleb is going to keep him up too late one night and he will finish outside of the top-25 at THE PLAYERS, though he will be back in contention with a shot at winning another major this season.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Outside of Top-25

Player Prediction: Dustin Johnson

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    Dustin Johnson withdrew from the Masters after hurting his back lifting a jet ski just a couple of days before the first major of 2012.

    D.J has played well when he has been healthy in 2012, finishing with a pair of top-fives and another top-ten in February.

    However, the biggest names in golf are forged at the biggest tournaments and Johnson wants to prove he is still a top player and a contender for the title of top American golfer after his pal, Bubba Watson, won the 2012 Masters.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-5

Player Prediction: Phil Mickelson

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    Phil Mickelson was a couple of right-handed shots and a Sunday afternoon triple-bogey away from winning the 2012 Masters and he is hungry for a win at TPC Sawgrass.

    Lefty has been among the most consistently great golfers on the PGA Tour in 2012 with a first, second and third-place finish in nine official tournaments this year.

    At the ripe age of 41, the pending World Golf Hall of Famer and 2007 PLAYERS champion is due to win another major in 2012 and he will contend for his second "fifth-major" title at Sawgrass, a tournament he last won in 2007. 

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-3

Player Prediction: Tiger Woods

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    Tiger Woods has to be considered a serious threat to win the PLAYERS Championship he last won in 2001 if he begins his final round within three strokes of the lead, and he will be favored to win if he finishes atop the leaderboard on Saturday.

    Woods won his first official PGA Tour event since 2009 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill the week before the 2012 Masters and he finished second in the Honda Classic in March.

    However, Woods slipped all the way to a T40 finish after entering the season's first major with high expectations.

    Tiger's ball-striking has been inconsistent this season, but he seems to be regaining the form he once displayed as the world's most dominant player and the result he finishes with at THE PLAYERS will depend upon which game he brings to TPC Sawgrass.

    Because when Tiger Woods is "on," he is still the most feared and talented golfer on the planet.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Top-3

Player Prediction: Rory McIlroy

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    Rory McIlroy has risen to the top of the golfing world in the past two seasons as arguably the best and most popular player on the planet.

    Though McIlroy relinquished his tepid claim to the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings to Luke Donald following the Zurich Classic at New Orleans, he will have a chance to reclaim his top ranking as he and Donald face off in Charlotte and at THE PLAYERS in the next two weeks.

    McIlroy was a winner at the Honda Classic earlier this season and he finished with second and third-place finishes in the two World Golf Championships events he has entered this year, though he finished alongside Tiger Woods with a disappointing T40 at the 2012 Masters.

    Sunday at the 2012 PLAYERS should see a star-studded group battling it out for leaderboard supremacy, and I believe young Rory from Northern Ireland emerges with the win and proves that he is the man to beat this season.

    THE PLAYERS Prediction: Winner

And the Winning Score?

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    Rory McIlroy will shoot -16 to win the 2012 PLAYERS Championship by three strokes over Phil Mickelson.

    With his first win at TPC Sawgrass, McIlroy will gain a strangle-hold on the No. 1 world golf ranking which he will not relinquish any time soon.

    At least that is how I see it going down with ten days to go leading up to the the Day One at THE PLAYERS.

    As for that slice of yours I promised to fix in the opening slide, just fill a class up with ice, squeeze three lemons and three limes into the cup, top off with club soda and sugar, stir vigorously for 5-10 seconds and your slice will be fixed and in your hands.

    Happy golfing.

    Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist primarily covering the NFL's Carolina Panthers, though he will be taking a foray into PGA TOUR coverage throughout the season.

    You can follow Jimmy Grappone on Twitter @imapone24.