10 Storylines to Follow at the 2014 Players Championship

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2014

10 Storylines to Follow at the 2014 Players Championship

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    Ian Walton/Getty Images

    Entering The Players Championship, a variety of threads are being weaved into the pressed polo shirt that is the PGA Tour. 

    Some of the narratives relate to Pete Dye's TPC Sawgrass itself. Some relate to speculation as to how players X, Y and Z will perform, and still some are concerned with a certain Nike staffer who is absent from the competition this week. 

    What storylines should you be keeping tabs on this week? Read on to find out. 

The Greens

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    As Rex Hoggard of Golf Channel writes, "The combination of a cold and wet winter and the 'misapplication' of a product designed to combat the wintery conditions has resulted in less-than-ideal conditions on some of the greens."

    Multiple putting surfaces were closed during practice rounds, and one might assume they will be in unfavorable condition when the tournament begins Thursday. 

    Be prepared for a lot of talk about the fourth, 11th and 12th greens throughout the course of the competition. 

How Will J.B. Holmes Follow Up His Win?

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    J.B. Holmes recorded his first victory since 2008 at last week's Wells Fargo Championship. After brain surgery just two years ago and a 2013 season cut short by injury, Holmes punctuated his comeback 2014 season with the win. 

    Although many may be looking for a letdown this week, remember that Holmes finished tied for sixth at The Players in 2011, so he's capable of quality play at Sawgrass. Prior to the win, the Kentuckian finished inside the top 20 in his three previous starts. We'll see if the hot streak continues this week. 

Garcia Returns to the Scene of His Meltdown; Bubba Watson Returns to Action

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    Sergio Garcia entered the final round of the 2013 Players Championship in position to win the tournament. After battling Tiger Woods that Sunday afternoon, the Spaniard stood on the 17th tee and promptly fired two consecutive shots into the water surrounding the famous island green. He ultimately made a quadruple-bogey seven, and his final-round 78 left him in a tie for eighth.

    It will be interesting to see if Garcia is haunted by any demons this week.  

    Bubba Watson is making a return this week as well. The Masters champion hasn't competed since earning his second green jacket nearly one month ago. All eyes will be on the long-hitting lefty to see what shape his game is in after the long layoff. 

Tournament Favorite Rory McIlroy Rounding into Form

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    Rory McIlroy enters The Players as Vegas Insiders' odds-on favorite and on the heels of three straight top-10 finishes, including a tie for eighth at last week's Wells Fargo Championship. Additionally, McIlroy finished tied for eighth at Sawgrass last year. The combination of these facts suggests the Ulsterman is due for a strong showing this week. 

    A solid performance is vital to continuing the narrative of a resurgent McIlroy, and it's important he plays well, as he likely has only one or two starts before the U.S. Open. Obviously, positive momentum in the progress toward Pinehurst is vital. 

The 17th Hole's Theater

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    Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

    TPC Sawgrass' 17th hole is designed to produce great drama. Indeed, the 145-ish-yard par-three will likely be a leading factor in the story of The Players Championship: 2014 Edition. 

    Some 17th-related trivia:

    • The highest score ever made at the 17th? Bob Tway's 12 in 2005. 
    • Last year, 44 golf balls found the water at Sawgrass' most famous hole. 
    • Of players in the field, Phil Mickelson has made the most birdies at the 17th, racking up 15 tweeters in his career.

How Will Scoring Leader Stroud Fair?

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Here's a storyline you may not be aware of and one that will be interesting to follow this week: Chris Stroud has the best scoring average at TPC Sawgrass among active players. In 14 rounds at Sawgrass, Stroud is averaging 70.79 strokes per round.

    Stroud finished tied for 33rd last year and tied for 10th at the Players in 2010. It will be interesting to see if Stroud, the 82nd-ranked player in the world, continues his inspired play at Pete Dye's masterpiece. 

Top Players Looking for Jump-Start

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    The 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst is just over a month away, and some of the best golfers in the world could use a shot in the arm as we near the season's second major championship. 

    Here's a list of top-ranked players (and their FedEx Cup positions) who are presently outside the top 30 in the FedEx Cup rankings to ensure they make it to the Tour Championship:

    • Hunter Mahan (55)
    • Phil Mickelson (83)
    • Steve Stricker (166)  
    • Luke Donald (37)
    • Rory McIlroy (38)
    • Rickie Fowler (42)
    • Graeme McDowell (43)
    • Sergio Garcia (44)
    • Justin Rose (50)
    • Adam Scott (57)
    • Jason Dufner (77)
    • Ernie Els (91)
    • Lee Westwood (95)
    • Brandt Snedeker (105)

First-Timers at Sawgrass

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    A number of players in the field are participating in their first Players. So it seems fitting to ask how those first-timers will fare.

    Among those teeing it up at Sawgrass for the first time:

    • Jordan Spieth
    • Patrick Reed
    • Chesson Hadley
    • Justin Hicks
    • Morgan Hoffman
    • D.H. Lee
    • Hideki Matsuyama
    • Jamie Donaldson 
    • Joost Luiten
    • John Peterson

Who Will Rise in the FedExCup Rankings?

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    As mentioned in an earlier slide, players will be starting to think about their FedExCup positions with the ultimate goal of situating themselves inside the top 30 to punch their tickets to the season-ending Tour Championship.

    Among the top five players in the FedExCup, three have been trending downward lately: Jimmy Walker, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson. 

    With 600 FedExCup points up for grabs (the most in any non-major tournament) players will be grappling for position, looking to overtake those who are struggling (to various degrees) at the top of the heap. 

The Storyline That Isn't

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    Last year's Players champ isn't in the field this year. You may have heard of him: Tiger Woods. 

    As always, when Tiger Woods isn't teeing it up in an event he traditionally plays, it's a storyline. Woods continues to recover from back surgery.

    As he wrote on his blog earlier this week: "It's Monday of THE PLAYERS, and I'd rather be driving north on I-95 to Ponte Vedra, but unfortunately, I won't be playing this week."

    Indeed, Woods won't be playing for months, it seems, as he hasn't been cleared to do anything more than chip and putt around the practice facility at his Jupiter Island palace.

    As Woods wrote, "I've said several times, I hope to be back sometime this summer, but I just don't know when."

    Uncertainty as to Woods' return date is nearly as bothersome for TW's fans, the Tour and sponsors as an understanding that the golfer will miss the remainder of the season would be. The specter of and speculation about Woods' return will continue to loom until something firm has been declared.

    Like it or not, Woods' situation is a storyline this week and will continue to be until he announces a return date (at which point fevered anticipation and countdowns will abound).