Jason Day is set to defend his title this week, as members of a loaded field have made their way to TPC Sawgrass for THE PLAYERS Championship.
Known as one of the most difficult venues on the PGA Tour, TPC Sawgrass is not for the faint of heart. Pete Dye designed the course with the ultimate challenge in mind, and while it can be manageable for a player who is executing all of their shots, players who make mistakes are often punished severely. Changes over the years to the original design have lessened the difficulty a touch, but there's no question TPC Sawgrass is consistently looked at as one of the stiffest tests on the PGA Tour schedule.
THE PLAYERS is typically billed as having the strongest field in golf, and it's difficult to disagree. This year, only two players ranked inside the top 50 in the world (Thomas Pieters and Brandt Snedeker) are absent. The field is so good that it's impossible to mention everyone in a preview like this, but despite all of that star power, it's hard to look past world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. Prior to withdrawing from the Masters last month with a back injury, he'd won his previous three starts against stout competition at the Genesis Open, WGC-Mexico Championship, and WGC-Dell Match Play.
When he made his return last week at the Wells Fargo Championship, Johnson finished runner-up to Brian Harman after a pair of 67s on the weekend, putting to rest any doubts about any lingering effects from the back injury. The only problem? Johnson has never played overly well at TPC Sawgrass, with his best result coming last year when he finished tied for 28th. Given his track record in this event, expecting another quality finish may be the wrong approach, but with the way he has been playing, Johnson being in contention on the weekend feels like an inevitability.
Jason Day comes in as the defending champion, but since that win, his results have been all over the place. He played well right after the win, finishing outside of the top 25 just once in eight starts and nearly winning the PGA Championship, but his 2016 ended with a pair of withdrawals due to a bad back. Inconsistency has plagued him in 2017, so it's hard to know what to expect from Day at this point.
Two of the early favorites to win THE PLAYERS are making returns from extended layoffs this week. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia are back after last teeing it up at the Masters over a month ago. McIlroy's time off included getting married back home in Ireland, but don't expect any rust. The last time McIlroy finished outside of the top 10 in a stroke-play event was the BMW Championship last September, and after struggling in this event early in his career, he has finished no worse than a tie for 12th in each of the last four years.
Garcia, who is coming off of his long-awaited first major championship win, has usually played well at Sawgrass. He's posted eight top-15 finishes in 17 starts, including a win back in 2008 and his 13 consecutive made cuts in the event have allowed him to earn the most money of any player in tournament history. Just don't talk about how it all ended in 2013.
Last year, the tournament was plagued by severe winds and extremely fast greens that significantly impacted scoring during the third round. Thankfully, it doesn't appear like that should be an issue this year, but renovations were made after the tournament last year that will make the course play differently. The greens were replaced, switching from Miniverde to Tifeagle Bermuda, and several holes had their greens changed to allow for more variety in their pin-position options. A new water hazard was also added that should come into play on both the sixth and seventh holes.
But the big change comes on the par-4 12th. The hole has been shortened, and at 302 yards, is now a driveable par-4 for most of the players in the field. Of course, going for the green has its dangers, as a water hazard was added to the left of the green and a long bunker was put in place of the mounding short of it, putting a premium on accuracy from the tee for those going for it in one shot. Previously, the 12th was a relatively mundane hole, but the changes have turned it into the ultimate risk/reward hole, which is a perfect fit for the Pete Dye design.
One hole that didn't get renovated was the island green par-3 17th, and with good reason. At just 137 yards, it's nothing more than a wedge or 9-iron for most of the field, but much like the 12th at Augusta, it causes fits for many players and is almost always a factor in the weekend's outcome. Whether it's the swirling winds, the raucous crowds, or the threat of water all around the green, players tend to either crumble or rise to the occasion on 17, and you can bet that it will be a focal point again this week.