The Players Championship is often labeled as golf's fifth major and serves as a suitable bridge between the Masters and U.S. Open. The TPC at Sawgrass' Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, provides an outstanding test for the game's most elite players.
One notable absence from the 2014 field will be defending champion Tiger Woods, which leaves plenty of other viable candidates to walk away with one of the most prestigious PGA Tour trophies.
The current 12-1 favorite ahead of Thursday's start is former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, with 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott in second at 14-1, per OddsShark.com. Not far behind are past Players Championship winners Matt Kuchar (18-1), Sergio Garcia (20-1) and Henrik Stenson (25-1).
Phil Mickelson flirted with contention this last weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship and appears to be rounding into form at the right time. Lefty is listed at 25-1 along with Stenson. Luke Donald and U.S. Open defender Justin Rose is 22-1.
Those are just some of the big names considered among the favorites, but this tournament is really anyone's to win. No one has ever won it back-to-back times, and Jack Nicklaus is the only player to triumph at the Players more than twice.
It thus stands to reason that another new victor will emerge this time around, so here is a look at the odds for those who figure to be most prominent in contention. The more targeted analysis will be on several superstars who haven't won the Players but have the best chances this year.
Source: OddsShark.com. Complete field odds available there.
Rory McIlroy (12-1)
In no start on the PGA Tour this season has McIlroy finished outside of the top 25, and he's finished no worse than tied for eighth in his past three events. What is absent from McIlroy's 2013-14 PGA Tour campaign is a win.
Often it's been one bad round that has kept the Northern Irish star from truly threatening in final rounds. McIlroy expressed frustration at his inability to string together 72 strong holes after the Wells Fargo Championship, per Golf Channel's Randall Mell:
Rory McIlroy on what looks like his 3rd straight top 10: "It's fine, whatever. You want wins. I don't want to backdoor top 10 it every wk."— Randall Mell (@RandallMellGC) May 4, 2014
Putting has often been the culprit for McIlroy's inconsistency in the past when he hasn't been firing on all cylinders, but he's flashed enough brilliance with the club to run away with two major titles. Before last week's event in Charlotte, McIlroy explained what was giving him problems on the greens this season, per ESPN.com's Bob Harig:
I've gotten into a few faults this year. I started standing a little too close to the ball, so my eye line was on the first side of the ball. Basically I couldn't see a straight line. I started standing too far open and pushing it out with my left hand, so I'm trying to square myself up again and putting structure in place, so every time I get over a putt, I know that I'm aiming correctly.
Rarely do players give that type of specific insight into their games—another reason to appreciate McIlroy's candor to the media. Now that his alignment is fixed on the most important shots in golf, perhaps McIlroy is finally due to get into the winner's circle.
The Players Championship hadn't been kind to McIlroy in the past until he broke through with, ironically enough, a tie for eighth in 2013, mostly thanks to an opening 66. If his putter gets hot this week, McIlroy has been playing as well tee to green as anyone and should be a threat to win.
Luke Donald (22-1)
A runner-up finish at the RBC Heritage in his last start suggests that Donald may be on the way to fitting his swing changes in place and competing at a more consistent level in the biggest events.
Who is the best bet to win the 2014 Players Championship?
A tie for 19th at the 2013 Players Championship was preceded by two top-six finishes when Donald was playing the best golf of his career in reigning atop the world rankings. The Englishman evidently likes this course and has had enough production in the past to suggest he'll fare well.
Only two of Donald's past 16 rounds at TPC at Sawgrass have been over par.
Majors have been disappointing to say the least throughout Donald's career, but winning the so-called "fifth" major would at least alleviate some of the pressure on him. The oddsmakers seem to trust him more than most players in the field, and rightly so.
Absent a worldwide win since 2012, Donald is long overdue—despite how formidable this field is.
Jordan Spieth (28-1)
Remember that 20-year-old young gun who was leading on Masters Sunday for most of the front nine? Well, he suffered an ever so slight letdown at the RBC Heritage, yet still managed to finish tied for 12th.
Now Spieth is gearing up for the Players and has been hard at work in his preparation, approaching this event as he would a major:
That worked well last time out at Augusta National, so it helps that Spieth has had huge, recent success to draw on at a venue where he was making his competitive debut. TPC Sawgrass is a shot-maker's course and won't penalize Spieth for his lack of elite length off the tee as much as other courses might.
Plus, the prodigious Texas native is ahead of two notable Players champions in the world rankings, as Kyle Porter of CBS Sports alluded to in his analysis:
Jordan Spieth moves up to No. 7 in the world. Ahead of bums like Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson.— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) April 21, 2014
Spieth's rise has been exhilarating, and he proved at the Masters that no stage is too big for him.
Although he ultimately didn't capture the green jacket, the experience Spieth accumulated will be invaluable going forward. It's not as though Bubba Watson was any slouch to play with in the final group either, since he won his second Masters in three years.
McIlroy and Spieth played together during the first two rounds of the Masters, but McIlroy struggled to make the cut on the number while Spieth went on to contend. They ultimately didn't finish far apart, though, and look to be the two most promising young stars amid a slew of up-and-comers in modern golf.
Should the precocious duo battle it out at Sawgrass, it would be an epic storyline that would compensate for Woods being out of action. Tossing the redemption-seeking Donald into the mix to battle the young players—especially McIlroy, who has two majors already while Donald has yet to win one—could set up an epic 2014 Players Championship.
This is wishful thinking to believe that all three of these world-class golfers will fare well, but they're all in strong form and are among the best candidates for another first-time Players winner.