Winning The Players Championship has become something of a bad omen in recent years. No less than four players in the last 10 years (Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Stephen Ames and Craig Perks) have seen their performance fall off a cliff after winning.
Coincidence? The players on this list sure hope so.
Bad omen or not, The Players Championship is still one of the biggest events on the PGA Tour calendar, and boasts perhaps the best field in all of golf. The so-called “fifth major,” The Players is held at one of the Tour’s best courses in the TPC at Sawgrass,and is home to one of the great holes in the world (the famous 17th island hole). Beyond No. 17, Sawgrass is a great test of golf and is legendary golf course architect Pete Dye’s most famous design.
The Players Championship also serves as an important warm-up test for next month’s U.S. Open. The pressure on Sunday will mimic that of a major championship and will provide a good barometer for those hoping to contend at Congressional.
Following is a list of five golfers to watch this week at the Players Championship:
Already a winner at The Players Championship (2007), Phil Mickelson’s game is starting to look like it’s peaking.
He played well last week at the Wells Fargo Championship (T-9th) and has always been comfortable and confident at Sawgrass.
A point of concern for Mickelson continues to be poor driving, however. Last week in Charlotte, Mickelson hit just 39 percent of his fairways. I am already on record saying that I think this trend will eventually come back to bite him. As good as the rest of Mickelson’s game is, you simply cannot contend week to week without keeping the ball in play off the tee.
If Mickelson can drive it well this week, look for his name to be near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday.
Luke Donald would get my vote for best player in the world. I absolutely love his game. Watching Donald play golf reminds me of the way Greg Maddux used to pitch. It isn’t flashy or overpowering, but there is never a moment when he isn’t in total control.
Donald hasn’t had a great deal of success at The Players (he has only one top-10 finish, T-2nd in 2005), but with the way he is playing that is almost completely irrelevant.
Luke Donald has played seven PGA Tour events this season. He has made six cuts, finishing in the top 10 each of those times. He is first on the PGA Tour money list. He is ranked second on the PGA Tour in putting average (1.692 putts per GIR) and fifth in birdies per round.
If that isn’t predictive of success this week, I don’t know what is. Look for him to be in contention on Sunday afternoon.
Matt Kuchar is a player who is built to contend at big tournaments. His game, like Luke Donald’s, isn’t flashy, but is seemingly without flaw. Looking at his statistics from this season, he is a marvel of consistency from tee to green.
He ranks in the top 20 on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, greens in regulation, putting average and birdies per round. In 10 starts this season, he has yet to miss a cut and has six top-10 finishes. His scoring average (69.75) is good for second on the PGA Tour.
His best finish at The Players came last year (T-13th), but I think he will best that this week. He drew a favorable pairing with Martin Kaymer and Tiger Woods for the first two rounds and will look to prove that he isn’t an also-ran in this power group.
I think he will succeed.
Woodland currently ranks in the top 20 on the PGA Tour in driving distance, greens in regulation, birdie average, scoring average and all-around ranking.
Already a winner on Tour this season (Transitions Championship), Woodland has the game to take advantage of TPC Sawgrass. Woodland’s length and ability to make birdies are perfectly tailored to success this week at The Players Championship.
Paired with Phil Mickelson for the first two rounds, Woodland will have a chance to play off his strength and the energy of their crowd. If they both get hot, many birdies will be made.
Not only would I not be surprised if Woodland contended, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won this week.
That would make for quite an introduction to the golf world.
Nick Watney is on the brink of being an elite golfer. Not yet a household name, he already has a big win on his resume this season (WGC-Cadillac Championship).
Watney is fourth on the PGA Tour Money List ($2,373,733), 10th in scoring average (70.07) and first in all-around ranking.
He is coming off his first and only missed cut of the season last week in Charlotte, and will look to rebound and build some momentum for next month’s U.S. Open. He had a terrible time putting last week (2.0 putts per GIR, up from a season average of 1.747, 29th on the PGA Tour), but Watney’s game (and putting stroke) is rock solid.
He finished tied for 17th at last year’s Players Championship, and I think he is poised for a good run this week. He drives the ball well and plays his irons brilliantly.
TPC at Sawgrass is a course that demands accurate iron play and solid putting, so if Watney can continue to hit greens in regulation and make a few putts, he will be a factor on Sunday.